As he continues to work through personal issues that seem to require expiation through his characters on screen, Mel Gibson, plays a Tom Craven, a Boston cop out for more than justice after his daughter is murdered. His face deeply lined, his hairline receding, just about all of his movie star glamour etched away, he is no more the larger-than-life hero of “Braveheart” and “Mad Max.” He is not a big man; we often see him standing next to bigger ones, contributing to the movie’s claustrophobic feeling. He does not have a big life. He is still in the house he has lived in for decades, with one bottle of good booze covered with dust and one person he cares about, his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). He’s not much good at talking or for interacting with the complexities and ambiguities of the world. Emma teases him, perhaps a bit ruefully, that he doesn’t even know what her job is. But she knows he is safe. And so when she needs help, she comes home.
A couple of hours later, she is killed in a drive-by. The logical conclusion is that the culprit is someone who was after Tom, some bad guy he put away. But the use of logic is the first of many assumptions Tom will have to relinquish to understand what trouble Emma had gotten into and what he must do about it.
The movie is based on a Thatcher/Reagan-era British miniseries, itself perhaps inspired by the 1970’s American cinema of paranoia, lone individual against grand conspiracy movies like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.” This version reverses the nationalities; Yorkshire becomes Boston and the American with a shady past as a spook played by Joe Don Baker becomes a Brit with a cockney accent played by Ray Winstone as Jedburgh, the most compelling character in the film because we do know know why he seems to know everything, whose side he is on, or what he does. “I’m usually the guy who stops you connecting A and B,” he says.
Connecting A and B is what we look for in movies, at least studio movies with big stars, but we are perfectly happy to spend two hours figuring out what that connection is. If the murky intersections of various categories of bad guys makes that connection not entirely unexpected, there are a few good twists along the way. Director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale” and the upcoming “Green Hornet” as well as the original BBC version of this story) keeps the tension taut and the action compelling. There are fine details, a too-smooth executive rolling his gold wedding band through his fingers as he pretends to be concerned, Tom off duty reaching instinctively for a gun that isn’t there. The build-up of Tom’s sense of urgency and the directness of his instincts counterposed with the murkiness of other characters’ motivations works well, too. He literally smashes through walls as he psychically smashes through the boundaries of his profession, of law, and even of rationality itself, ultimately acting on the purest of instinct, as he says, a man with nothing left to lose.
Both Tom and the man who plays him seem intent on expiating some transgression. Gibson is often drawn to roles that involve physical abuse and exposure down to the bone. Here that works well up to the very last scene, where Gibson the man seems to break away from the character with a final image that tells us more about the struggles of the Hollywood actor than the Boston cop and would take us out of the movie if it wasn’t already over.