Saturday, May 23, 2009


Outdoors enthusiasts will find something to relish in the Anthony Hopkins & Alec Baldwin adventure “The Edge” (** out of ****), a grim but familiar alfresco saga of survival that boasts elements of both “Deliverance” and “Jurassic Park.” Despite the considerable talents involved, an uneven screenplay and unsympathetic characters unravel “Mulholland Falls” director Lee Tamahori’s weather-beaten yarn of betrayal and jealousy. Only die-hard Hopkins fans may rate this soggy opus worth watching, while seasoned cinemagoers who know anything about critter movies will smirk every time that Bart the Bear chases our protagonists through the sticks.

The stodgy David (“The Untouchables”) Mamet screenplay whistles up the perennial theme of man versus the wilderness. Fashion photographer Bob Green (Alec Baldwin of “Miami Blues”), his model (Elle Macpherson of “Batman & Robin”), and her bookworm tycoon of a husband Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins of “Instinct”) fly deep in the remote Canadian Rockies for a photo shoot. No sooner has the plane landed and the characters been deposited at a quaint lodge perched on a looking glass lake than you feel the story knuckle up with tension. Something isn’t right between husband and wife. Moreover, the cuckolded hubby shudders at the thought that his wife’s photographer may be clicking with her in other ways that have little to do with setting an F-stop.

When a model cannot report for his shoot, Green searches for a native as a replacement. He finds a picture that lodge keeper Styles (L.Q. Jones of “The Wild Bunch”) has shot of an Indian who hunts bears. Green resolves to track the man down and use him as a substitute. Bob invites Charles to fly with them out to where the Indian lives. During the trip, Charles casually asks Bob, “How are you planning to kill me?” Bob chuckles with incredulity at Charles’ paranoia. Later, a flight of birds collide with their plane. Spiraling out of control, the plane crashes into a lake and sinks.

The pilot dies, but Bob, Charles, and photo assistant Steven (Harold Perrineau of King of New York”) escape from the sunken aircraft. Lost in the desolate mountains where no phones, roads, or Triple-A motor club help is easily obtained, our heroes rely on their scanty knowledge with successful results to real-life situations. Charles is the kind of guy who has more book sense that world sense. Initially, he uses a paper clip and a leaf spinning in a water drenched tree stump to guide them south. But his first efforts fail and he resorts to the nighttime stars to keep them from tramping in a circle. Credit the filmmakers with handily isolating our heroes and not cutting them much slack. Although they dramatically set up their story well enough, a good set-up doesn’t always guarantee an adequate payoff.

The best part of “The Edge” occurs after the crash when these fish out of water arouse the appetite of a carnivorous Kodiak. Out of the woods bounds Bart, a 1,400 pound bear, whose performance can accurately described as grizzly. This huge bear menaces our threesome for the second-third of the action. The scenes featuring Bart as he scrambles after and then stalks our heroes into the night with bloodthirsty results spark a reasonable aura of terror. New Zealand film director Lee Tamahori beefs up the anxiety by photographing his actors in the same shots with the bear. The use of a telephoto lens enables Tamahori to make the bear, actually romping much farther behind Hopkins or Baldwin than it seems, appear as if the beast were nipping at their heels.

Unfortunately, if you know anything about trained movie animals, a subversive thought may undercut those pictorially realistic escapades. Every time that big bad Bart bares his fangs, rears up on his hindquarters, or drools over his next victim, you cannot help but think that off-camera stand his trainer frantically waving a Dolly Madison bear claw at him. Other than the harassed Hopkins, Bart is the sharpest thing in “The Edge.” Bart’s performance is captured in riveting close-ups that sensationalizes his critter villainy. Speaking of animals portrayals, you can see the toll that animal rights activists have taken on movies like “The Edge.” In one scene, our starving heroes trap an unsuspecting squirrel in a home-made cage of twigs, but you never see them dine on the defenseless arboreal rodent. Somehow, the sight of two big, famished guys munching down on a scrawny squirrel doesn’t evoke the epic struggle of man against Nature. Of course, only the naïve don’t realize that most of the time, the real animals are replaced in close-ups with puppets or convincing facsimiles.

Once Bart has been slain, Mamet’s script settles down to more serious but less exciting business. Charles’ suspicions that Bob and his wife have been shacking up are confirmed. This is one of the major flaws of Mamet’s lackluster script. Charles’ wife gave him an inscribed watch for his birthday. When he searches the watch case, Charles discovers the warranty along with the incriminating receipt. The receipt contains not only the cost of the watch that his wife gave Bob! How stupid can you be?

Sometimes, these Hollywood movies make their revelations a tad too convenient. This doesn’t say much for the mentality of Charles’ dimwitted spouse. By this time, our heroes have found an abandoned hunting lodge, and Bob has appropriated a rifle. Charles realizes with some regret that he was right all along as Bob orders him to turn around so he can more easily shoot him in the back.

The sense of relief that you experience at the end of “The Edge” has little to do with who survives the ordeal but more with the reprieve you get from the film itself. Even the ending when Charles confronts his wife stirs up any overwrought emotions. The craggy Canadian terrain where “The Edge” was lensed and the optically abetted bear fights cannot redeem the trite man versus man cat & mouse games in the latter half of the movies.

Ultimately, it makes you wonder what audiences did Hollywood aim “The Edge” at, because the film is so spartan and dreary. Despite some moments of genuine suspense, this existential character study flounders about, unsure whether it wants to qualify as a juvenile action opus or a heavy-handed morality parable.

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