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Good adventure, little else, in The Edge

By Noel Murray and Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  What, exactly, is The Edge? The title of the new movie--directed by Lee Tamahori from a screenplay by David Mamet--presumably refers to the thin line between civility and savagery, and how it can be crossed when a man is lost in the wilderness. Yet the movie is about no such thing. Yes, nerves are rubbed raw, and we do witness the spectacle of men at odds with nature and with each other, but this is no Lord of the Flies or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It's really just a rousing outdoor adventure story, and any pretensions to greatness or deep meaning begin and end with the title.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Charles, a reserved billionaire with a quick mind and a great command of useful facts. On a weekend excursion to the mountains with his supermodel wife (Elle MacPherson) and her entourage of photographers and colleagues, Charles gets roped into a jaunt to a remote hunting cabin. The seaplane that carries the errand boys flies into a flock of migrating geese, and it crashes into the lake below. The only survivors are Charles, a photographer named Bob (Alec Baldwin), and Bob's assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau). The trio pull themselves to shore, but they question their chances of survival in the middle of nowhere with no supplies and little hope of rescue.

The fun of The Edge comes from watching Charles think his way out of the predicament. So many movies these days aren't quite up to the cleverness of their premises; films as big as The Game and as shoestring as Dream With the Fishes are united by their stiltedness--their melodies are too complicated for their composers to play. The Edge, like the recently released L.A. Confidential, constantly surprises us with its imagination. Early on, Charles points out that people lost in the wild tend to die of shame, because they do not stop and think. To The Edge's credit, it makes these thought processes exciting to watch.

For this, the praise mainly belongs to Hopkins, who delivers Mamet's punchy dialogue with amusing contemplation, oblivious to how irrationally rational he sounds. While others about him are losing their heads, Charles is calmly explaining how to start a fire with carved ice. Credit also goes to Mamet's careful plotting, which is almost cruel in its contrivances. For all of Charles' ingenuity--his experiments with makeshift compasses and deadfall animal traps--he can't quite plan around the vicissitudes of nature. He's hampered by the unreliability of his fellow castaways (especially Bob, who may have had an affair with Charles' wife) and by the appetite of a man-eating Kodiak bear. At every turn, no matter how well-prepared he is, Charles' life is in danger.

Grin and bear it Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin fighting the ravages of nature in The Edge Photo by Joe Lederer

The Edge's weakness is that it gets hooked on the danger--the bear and the betrayals. The film consists of one crisis after another, until it becomes all about the crises and not enough about the characters. Tamahori keeps the action tight and thrilling, and Mamet's dialogue is typically brittle, but the script lacks scope. We know these men only when they're in trouble, and we have hints about who they are in the real world, but ultimately we have no stake in the ways their wilderness experience changes them. We're wrapped up in the perils of the moment, but we don't especially care about how things turn out.

What we're left with is a film that's entertaining, but hardly as resonant as one should expect from Mamet. At one point, Bob mentions that being stranded in the mountains is a lot different from snorting cocaine off the hipbones of fashion models, and Charles replies, "In what way?" It's a funny moment, and it says a lot about Charles' character, but the movie would've been much improved had the filmmakers answered his question.--Noel Murray

A well-balanced diet

Simplicity is often an effective creative tactic, particularly when it's skillfully utilized. While Soul Food's themes are basic--familial obligations, sibling tensions, cultural heritage, etc.--they are depicted within a framework that nicely balances dramatic conflict, smartly written dialogue, and humorous insight. The result is a first-rate film that makes its points without sermonizing or insulting the audience's intelligence. It's that rarest of late-'90s Hollywood vehicles: a family film that's not a cartoon, a collection of stock characters, or a pastiche of clichs and crashes.

This first movie from the Edmonds Entertainment company (the duo of music impresario Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and his wife Tracey, who coproduced the film) offers a dynamic narrative about an African-American family with a 40-year tradition of lavish Sunday dinners, in which culinary delights are the backdrop for intimate and enriching conversation and interaction. Three sisters are the main characters, superbly played by Vanessa L. Williams, Nia Long, and Vivica A. Fox. One's an uptown attorney, the second a beauty-shop owner, the third a homemaker and mother.

These are sharp, contemporary, sensual women, each supremely confident in some ways and extremely insecure in others. While their lives and loves form the film's foundation, writer/director George Tillman doesn't make them superwomen, avenging angels, or cynical, disillusioned wrecks. They are by turns triumphant, upset, jealous, joyous, scheming, opportunistic, and complimentary, but they ultimately support each other at critical junctures.

The main theme concerns the family's fortunes and turmoil after the matriarch Big Mama (an exceptional turn by the underrated Irma P. Hall) lapses into a coma during surgery. There are subplots involving Williams' attorney husband (Michael Beach), who wants to forsake a lucrative legal career for a more tenuous musical one; the struggles of Long's ex-convict husband (Mekhi Phifer) to persevere outside of prison; and the sisters' attempt to settle long-standing differences. There's also an alluring cousin who eventually shatters one sister's marriage, along with other elements that enhance the story without siphoning off too much attention from the main story line.

The male characters, particularly Beach and Phifer, have roles just as nuanced as their female counterparts, despite the fact that they get less screen time. The film is narrated by young actor Brandon Hammond, who's as delightful here as he is on the new Gregory Hines Show while displaying far more range and sensitivity. And Soul Food does have a happy ending, but one that's neither implausible nor improbable.

The direction and pace build things so smoothly that, by the movie's conclusion, you've accepted these characters, with their plights and flaws, and you celebrate their success. Add excellent music from Babyface that fulfills the mandate of a classic soundtrack--it enhances the action and dialogue rather than standing apart from it--and celebrity cameos from members of Jodeci and New York Undercover's Malik Yoba, and you have a masterful film that's attractive and enjoyable enough to hold up through repeat showings.--Ron Wynn

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