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Mel returns with bloody fanfare
Detective Thomas Craven, played by Mel Gibson, hunts down the killer of his daughter in "Edge of Darkness." - photo by Warner Bros.
‘Edge of Darkness’
Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic, Shawn Roberts, David Aaron Baker
Rated: R for strong bloody violence and language
Running time: 117 minutes
Bottom line: Gripping but downbeat shoot-em-up

Remember when Mel Gibson was just a plain old movie star? Gibson made his mark as a charming, sometimes goofy/sometimes glowering action star, and we liked him. But then came preachy Mel, then drunk anti-Semitic Mel, then adulterous yet somehow still devout Catholic Mel.

"Edge of Darkness" is Gibson’s first movie role in about seven years, and it marks the return of the actor we liked so well in "Braveheart" and "The Patriot." And while many of you (justifiably) won’t be able to look past all the other nonsense, this movie reminds us what Gibson has always done best: hunt down bad guys.

The bad guys in this case gun down Emma Craven (Bojana Novakovic), the mid-20s daughter of detective Thomas Craven (Gibson). Emma comes home for a visit and becomes alarmingly ill — bloody noses and vomiting. Just as Craven opens his front door to take Emma to the hospital, a masked gunman shoots and kills Emma. Having no reason to suspect anyone would want to kill Emma, Craven and his fellow detectives assume he was the target.

This is devastating, obviously, and Thomas goes through a period of screen time trying to cope with his daughter’s death. He spreads her ashes into the tide on their favorite beach. He remembers loving moments they shared when she was a child.

"Edge of Darkness" is very dynamic in this way. Many of the scenes are quiet, even peaceful. Sometimes this leads to one of Craven’s tender recollections of Emma, but other times the peace sets us up for an unexpected storm. Director Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale") deftly keeps the audience on the edge of the seats with this sense of misdirection.

Once Craven begins to investigate Emma’s murder, though, he discovers his daughter was involved in militant activism, and the tension steadily ratchets up to the climax. Emma was indeed the intended target, and the investigation begins to connect a major corporation, a U.S. Senator and shadowy government security agencies in a complicated conspiracy.

Speaking of shadowy, a man named Jedbugh (Ray Winstone) begins to visit Craven occasionally, and he is perhaps the most intriguing character of the movie. Jedburgh is a cleaner, a man who disposes of people and situations. We’re not sure whether he intends to help or kill Craven.

We’ve seen this character type before, but Jedburgh operates on a whole new level. His clients are governments, multinational corporations and intelligence agencies, and Winstone plays the character with such confidence and menace that these very powerful people are afraid of him.

Jedburgh exudes an irresistible air of mystery, yet we get to see him in a few private moments that show us the humanity behind a man who at first seems to have none.

Gibson still plays revenge believably. Craven has nothing to lose, doesn’t mind knocking off many henchmen in order to get a killshot on the villain and is willing to die for revenge. Gibson has played this character before, and he still does it well.

But this is not "Lethal Weapon," where the jokes fly as fast as the bullets. "Edge of Darkness" is aptly titled because unlike many of Gibson’s other action movies, there’s no comedy in this one. It’s a very dark movie, beginning to end.

The movie works very well until the final act, which contains a few twists too many. A couple of scenes are downright nonsensical and unnecessary. The film is based on a British mini-series and a lot of plot gets squeezed into two hours. It gets a bit convoluted.

Despite that, "Edge of Darkness" plays to Gibson’s strengths and, while it’s not in any way upbeat or light, it delivers the firepower action movie fans want. The big question is whether audiences still want to see Gibson at all. I admit I’m as curious as anyone to see the answer.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.