The Edge (1997)


Claws of Death

The Edge, much to my pleasure, is a hard movie to classify.  It’s a survival adventure but not a survival adventure, a killer-animal flick and not a killer-animal flick, a two-hander yet not a two-hander.  It skirts that rare line of mass entertainment and highbrow drama, chiefly thanks to David Mamet’s sly script, which never sacrifices smarts for action – or vice versa.

Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is a billionaire with an uncanny gift for memorizing even the most trivial pieces of information.  Despite his status, he’s soft-spoken and humble, treating everyone he encounters with respect and never flaunting his wealth.  He’s also plagued by a deep loneliness stemming from the knowledge that those who surround him – especially his model wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson) – are all to some extent with him for his money.  Bob Green (Alec Baldwin), Mickey’s photographer, is in many ways Charles’s opposite: arrogant, loudmouthed, and (comparatively) working class.  He shamelessly flirts with Mickey and has a streak of resentment towards Charles that manifests as mean-spirited, faux-affable teasing.

After Charles and Mickey’s entourage jet to rural Alaska for a work vacation – Bob is photographing Mickey for a magazine spread – Charles, Bob, and Bob’s assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) take a second plane hoping to capture some local flavor on film.  A flock of birds causes the plane to crash, killing the pilot and leaving the three men stranded in the wild.  Armed with only a few essentials and Charles’s steel trap of a mind, the three must contend with a lack of food, the unforgiving elements, and a vicious Kodiak bear.

Lee Tamahori’s direction does a solid job capturing the atmosphere and immensity of the Alaskan wilderness, as well as staging some thrilling action sequences with a very real bear.  He’s aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping score; whose main theme is stately and imposing but also complemented by a mournful undertone.  But it’s David Mamet’s writing that sets The Edge apart.  The renowned playwright shows versatility in making the jump from stage to screen, pacing his screenplay with surgical precision but retaining his knack for compelling characters and crackling dialogue.  The script’s lack of showiness makes it easy to forget just how elegantly constructed the movie is, with not a single line or scene wasted.  Most impressive is the way Mamet seamlessly weaves a meaty character drama into a thrilling adventure story.

Bringing the formidable writing to life is the movie’s cast – which, despite the supporting players, essentially consists of the two leads.  The Edge gives us one of Hopkins’s better performances, and one of Baldwin’s best.  Hopkins’s honorable, brilliant tycoon and Baldwin’s bitter, glib photographer are both expertly-drawn characters, and their relationship, built on both necessary cooperation and deep-seated conflict, proves to be the heart of the movie.  Hopkins brings a winning serenity to Charles, while Baldwin never hits a false note as he charts Bob’s change in demeanor from passive-aggressiveness to unmasked hostility.

The only time The Edge falters is in its third act, which contains no truly bad moments but wears out its welcome regardless, with the climactic man-vs.-bear showdown too drawn-out for its own good.  Thankfully, the movie regains its footing in time for a satisfying conclusion to Charles and Bob’s arc, as well as a perfectly-executed coda.  Like the rest of the movie that precedes it, it manages to deliver both crowd-pleasing highs and thoughtful storytelling.


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