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Bangin' in the nails.

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Balding except for some hair plugs, with a face tending toward Droopy dog and a frame that seems smaller after all these years away, Mel Gibson is back on the big screen in Edge of Darkness. Don't call it a comeback — that would suggest he's been washed of the transgression of his 2006 drunken, anti-Semitic run-in with the law. Instead, it's just a return, a pickup in an acting career that last left off with Signs, The Patriot, and Payback. For the moviegoer who is able (not to mention willing) to trade fact for fiction, that's a good thing.

Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a Boston detective welcoming home his somewhat estranged daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic, who gives a brief but effective performance). Just reunited, a shotgun blast kills Emma on Craven's front porch, and the cop is left piecing together the mystery of why, assuming the bullets were meant for him.

Here, Gibson gets to act the emotions he's drawn to again and again, from Mad Max down to Signs: rage, grief, existential haunt. And, as before, his movie's plot advocates a violent cleansing, a ritual purification bathed in blood. Ain't that America?

What Gibson so often inflects this brand of violent cinema with is paternalism. Craven, like Mad Max's protagonist — and like Gibson roles Tom Mullen (Ransom), Benjamin Martin (The Patriot), and the Rev. Graham Hess (Signs) — is a father first. He's a man who's been injured by the world and has the power to set things back in balance by righteous action. It's a little like playing God. Is it any wonder Gibson himself drove in the crucifixion nails in The Passion of the Christ — not only because he's the sinner who necessitated the action but because he's the Father who saw the necessity of it. A line from Edge of Darkness: "You had better decide whether you're hangin' on the cross or bangin' in the nails."

In Edge of Darkness, the sins of the world are political and capitalistic. As Craven follows the murder plot, he finds an unholy collusion between an industrialist with defense contracts (the great Danny Huston at his creepy best), a Massachusetts Republican senator (Damian Young), and a leftist militant environmentalist faction called Night Flower. In his crusade to find out the truth, Craven is a middle-of-the-road warrior who cuts across party lines to avenge his daughter. (In corporate America's defense, the crimes they commit in the movie are almost too heinous even for them.)

In addition to Craven, the other rogue agent at play is Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a national-security consultant assessing and influencing the situation for an unknown employer. Gibson and Winstone share some really nice scenes of dialogue. The script — by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell adapting from Troy Kennedy-Martin's renowned 1980s BBC miniseries of the same name — is mostly smart, though it is inclined to the overkill. Monahan was responsible for The Departed, which was similarly inflicted.

Up next for Gibson, per IMDb, is a starring role in a movie in which "a guy walks around with a puppet of a beaver on his hand and treats it like a living creature." Um, that doesn't fit any theories I have.

Related Film

Edge of Darkness

Official Site: edge-of-darkness.warnerbros.com

Director: Martin Campbell

Writer: William Monahan and Andrew Bovell

Producer: Tim Headington, Graham King and Michael Wearing

Cast: Danny Huston, Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Shawn Roberts, Peter Hermann, Denis O'Hare, Jay O. Sanders, Caterina Scorsone, Gbenga Akinnagbe and Bojana Novakovic

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