It is not easy accounting for the strong appeal of The Edge. Its subject – two men in conflict with each other and a harsh, natural wilderness – is old-hat. As a contemporary action movie, it does not even begin to pass muster. The key personnel are no more inspiring: director Lee Tamahori, whose previous project Mulholland Falls (1996) lost the verve displayed in his debut Once Were Warriors (1994); and America's Great Overrated, David Mamet – a dramatist much given to bombast and bluster.
The film's simplicity, however, works in its favour. Mamet loves the spectacle of men slugging it out – and here, for a change, he lets their gestures speak louder than a torrent of archly stylised words.
Charles (Anthony Hopkins) and Robert (Alec Baldwin) form a familiarly odd and volatile couple – the former a cold intellectual whose only knowledge of life comes from books, the latter a fast-talking, smooth-walking operator.
The story starts at a cosy resort in Alaska. Charles's wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson), a model, sets her husband's nerves on edge as she subtly flirts with Robert, a fashion photographer. During a helicopter ride, Charles pops the million dollar question to his possible rival – "when do you plan to kill me?" – and then, in a ripe melodramatic touch, the plane crashes before Robert can formulate an answer.
This tale of outback survival deftly tempers classic testosterone-soaked issues – jealousy, virility, revenge – with an unlikely dose of New Age journeying and bonding. The film recalls that underrated psychological thriller Zero Kelvin (1995) in its mixture of angst, aggro and unexpected tenderness. Tamahori coaxes commendably restrained, natural performances from stars who are often overwrought elsewhere.
The spectacular element of the material is downplayed. There are a few falls, blows and cuts, a big bear and a very scared companion (Harold Perrineau) along for part of trek – but, for the most part, The Edge generates its considerable frisson from small details: a makeshift compass, a fire that won't ignite, threatening sounds in the distance, hastily prepared traps and weapons.
It may be Deliverance (1972) in a minor key, but it is none the less finely crafted and immensely satisfying.
© Adrian Martin February 1998