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The Edge

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  After a bloodless summer box office (in nearly every sense of the word), I was beginning to wonder if Hollywood was even capable of making movies that can get your heart moving anymore. Spielberg's wan Lost World, for example, raised my blood pressure but hardly my pulse rate. It seems the head-thrumming visceral excitement that a filmmaker like Sam Peckinpah could impart has long-ago been replaced with the paint-by-numbers thrills of Air Force One. Has anyone in Hollywood's "blockbuster era" had the intestinal fortitude to make a film like Apocalypse Now? I think not. Think of all the slam-bang energy packed into the last 20 minutes of George Miller's The Road Warrior. Has a film made in the last 10 years captured a fraction of that film's jazzy juice? Why can't modern action flicks hold a candle to even the weakest thing Howard Hawks ever cranked out? I guess what I'm asking is, "Where have all the blood and guts filmmakers gone?"

Director Lee Tamahori's new film The Edge may not have provided me with all the answers, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Tamahori is the brilliant New Zealand native who gave us the brutal and beautiful Once Were Warriors. He also gave us (to my mind, anyway) the vastly underrated film noir riff Mullholland Falls. With his new action adventure, The Edge, Tamahori gets a virile screenplay boost courtesy of playwright David Mamet. Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Oleanna, House of Games) has always been noted for his raw, confrontational dialogue and his powerful male characters. In The Edge, though, he turns up the testosterone until it surges like nitrous in a muscle car.

The setup here is pretty simple. Anthony Hopkins is Charles Morse, a billionaire bookworm with a photographic memory, a head full of useless facts and a beautiful trophy wife (Elle Macpherson). Morse finds himself dragged to Alaska on one of his wife's photo shoots. Also along for the ride is pretty boy photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin). Morse, no dummy exactly, is convinced that Green and his wife are engaged in a little hanky-panky. Morse is also pretty sure that the conniving shutterbug is geared up to bump him off, stealing his wife and uncounted millions to boot. That theory becomes sort of moot, though, when their single-engine plane crashes in the remote Alaskan wilderness and our two protagonists must suddenly rely on each other for survival. Morse has got the brains. Green has got the brawn. And they're going to need both when a blood-crazed Kodiak bear starts stalking them with din-din on his mind.

In Mamet's hands, this mano-a-mano fight for survival reads like a Jack London novel as written by James M. Cain. With his characters suddenly stripped of societal constraints (like the world of business in Glengarry Glen Ross, or the world of academia in Oleanna) and dumped into the wide-open wasteland of the frozen north, Mamet has found a whole new voice for himself. The dialogue here is much more sparse than in other Mamet efforts. Action is the order of the day and our screenwriter serves it up in great, gulping, unchewed bites.

Mamet's characters of late have become far too wrapped up in their own myopic little worlds (check out American Buffalo and you'll see what I mean). With a Mamet story, you can be pretty sure that the characters will remain mired in the glue of their own lives, with little hope of escape. In The Edge, though, Mamet presents us with two characters clawing, biting and scraping to get out of their environment, both physical and mental. Hopkins, it seems hardly worth mentioning, is spectacular and thoroughly believable as the introverted money man who suddenly discovers his anima fighting off a 1,400-pound bear with a sharpened stick. Alec Baldwin, it seems hardly worth mentioning, is less successful; but this is one of his most expressive roles, and he certainly fits the role of a vain hotshot to a tee. The bear is pretty damn good, too.

Director Lee Tamahori, meanwhile, is really coming into his own as a filmmaker. Tamahori is no indie auteur full of quirky, low-budget bluster. This man aspires to be a great director. It's hard to believe the sweeping cinematic vistas, in-your-face action and chest-thumping drama are the work of a director with only two previous films under his belt. I see Tamahori as an old-fashioned studio director, crafting big films with massive stars and splashy presentations. If this chap doesn't have an Oscar under his belt in the next 10 years, I will be very surprised. That said, there is still ample evidence of Tamahori's developing craft. He has a distracting tendency to telegraph his plot points by miles with some ham-handed foreshadowing. Nearly every time Tamahori goes in for a close up, you know you're being asked to check out something very important. When Anthony Hopkins stares at a diagram of a wild animal trap, for example, you just know that's going to come into play sooner or later. Part of this is Tamahori's old-fashioned style, and he can't be called entirely to task for it. At least he isn't calling our attention to irrelevant details, as so many of today's lazier directors do.

The Edge isn't exactly perfection, but it is some manly, get-your-blood-pumping filmmaking. With Mamet's raw-boned script as ammunition, Tamahori has fired up a tight, economical Lord of the Flies for adults.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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