Edge of Darkness: Is Mel Gibson Still a Star?

In his first leading role since 2002, a notorious actor tries to rekindle his star wattage

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We're deep into the new thriller Edge of Darkness. People are dying violently every few minutes; conspiracy theories are sprouting like kudzu. And Mel Gibson, as a Boston cop trying to find his daughter's killers, tells somebody it's the moment of truth. "You had better decide," he says, "whether you're hangin' on the cross or bangin' in the nails." Ouch. It's a reminder that Gibson, the movie star, is also Gibson, the director of the polarizing religious epic The Passion of the Christ, in which his one onscreen appearance showed him driving the first nail into Jesus' palm.

In the three decades since Gibson first cruised the postapocalyptic outback as Mad Max, he's forged a wayward career as one of Hollywood's top moneymakers. He fronted a couple of burly action-film franchises (three splendid Mad Max movies; four shoddy, popular Lethal Weapons). Ten of his films earned more than $100 million from 1989 to 2002, back when that was real money. His Scots epic Braveheart won him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. That was just Gibson's second film as director; his third, The Passion of the Christ, in 2004, was the all-time top-grossing film in both the R-rated and foreign-language (Aramaic, if you recall) categories.

Passion also made Gibson something of a pariah in Hollywood for what was perceived as the film's blame-the-Jews sentiment. Gibson denied the charge. Two years later, he was stopped for drunk driving; his arrest report states that "Gibson yelled out, 'The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.' Gibson then asked, 'Are you a Jew?'" The officer was Jewish.

Gibson got into an oddly similar tangle recently with Sam Rubin, an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles TV station KTLA. Rubin suggested to Gibson that some people think he should not have returned to acting "because of ... the remarks that were attributed to you." Not raising his voice, but leaning in toward Rubin, Gibson said, "That were attributed to me. That I didn't necessarily make. O.K.? But — and I gather you have a dog in this fight ... You have a dog in this fight? Or are you being impartial?" The implication was that if his interrogator was Jewish, he must have been trying to nail Gibson. Rubin is Jewish.

Aside from Mel's Jewish problem, he has the sizable challenge of rekindling his star wattage after being absent from leading roles since Signs in 2002. Edge of Darkness might seem just the vehicle for that mission. Based on an acclaimed BBC miniseries from 1985, with the same director at the helm (Martin Campbell, who with Casino Royale rebooted the James Bond franchise) and with William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed, working on the script, it focuses on a familiar Gibson character: the haunted hero who solves problems by killing people.

Mourning Sickness
In modern movies, when a father and daughter are shown in an affectionate relationship, you know one of them has to die. Thomas Craven, the cop, is walking into his house with his 24-year-old daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) when she is gunned down. The official suspicion is that Craven was the target, but he soon learns that she had been engaged in antinuclear espionage at Northmoor, a nearby plant run by the usual oily CEO (Danny Huston). In streamlining the original show's cast of malefactors, which included British and U.S. corporations and intelligence agencies, trade unions and the IRA, the movie reduces the story from a panoramic conspiracy to another one-guy-against-the-system thriller, and Edge loses its political edge.

Gibson, who has always been an undervalued actor, does a sturdy job as a grieving dad who still engages in conversations with his dead child; it's almost a letdown when he puts aside his mourning sickness and spirals into melodrama. At 54, Gibson is aging interestingly, with severe creases and sagging flesh. You look at him and think, This guy should play Nixon — another complex man of significant achievement with a debilitating belief that his enemies were bangin' nails into him.