“For all my life I've wanted to do something that was … um … that was unequivocal.”
“Well, Charlie, I think this qualifies.”
1997’s The Edge was a tour de force of brutal action that pitted screen superstar Anthony Hopkins and erstwhile jobber Alec Baldwin against the raw elements of a windswept and hostile Alaskan wilderness, the almost supernatural threat of a rogue, blood-hungry bear, and their own hard-bitten rivalry and distrust for one another.
Out in the wilds, introverted, bookish billionaire Charles Morse (Hopkins), selfish, ego-inflated fashion photographer Robert Green (Baldwin) and his assistant Steve (Harold Perrineau) are forced to battle against the rigours of nature after their plane goes down and their pilot is killed. City-boys through and through, their only chances of survival depend on their banding together and upon the theoretical skills that Morse had stored up inside his encyclopaedic and obsessive brain. But with no food, no shelter and stuck hundreds of miles away from safety, their lot just keeps getting worse when they draw the attention of the huge, ravenous and utterly relentless bear that becomes the film’s equivalent of that finned predator off the coast of Amity Island. No amount of book-learned skills are a substitute for the raw courage that they will need in order to survive the gruelling ordeal. And not all of them are going to come home in one piece.
Originally entitled Bookworm, The Edge was written for the screen by Hollywood gold, David Mamet, from a pitch put forward by producer Art Linson. The conceit was deadly simple – two men versus a giant bear. But Mamet saw potential to enlarge the story even further. He didn’t want two clean-cut heroes – he wanted enemies flung together by fate. Enemies that, if they weren’t beset by cruel adversities left, right and centre, would contrive to do one another in. To this end, he created the barbed dynamic that saw Morse discovering that Green had been having an affair with his gorgeous fashion-model wife Mickey (Elle McPherson) – yep, that makes her Mickey Morse! - and surmising that there may even be some sort of plot to get rid of him in order to inherit his fortune. Aye, there is a whiff of the old soap opera about that set-up, but thrust it into the heart of nature’s darkness and it becomes a wild-card of extra tension. The class divide between Morse and Green is compounded even further by the intellectual disparity that exists between the pair. Green is a go-getter. The sort of guy who normally loves to take life by the horns and go for a crazy ride, uncaring of the damage he may cause along the way. Morse lives for his books and is a slave to an obsessive desire to study. The photographer is practical and energetic. The billionaire is physically lethargic and stimulated only by answers and solutions. Together, they have the brains and the brawn that will guide them to safety. But they just don't like, or trust, one another.
Mamet adds something else too. He supplies a tag-along character in the guise of Green's assistant, Stephen (Harold Perrineau). Now, you don't need me to tell you exactly why the survival dynamic in operation here needs this particularly weak-willed and likeably dull third wheel … but let's just say that, as toothpicks go, he comes in especially handy for those with, um, much bigger mouths.
The Edge did only middling business when it was released, although reviews were generally favourable. I think it is an undervalued actioner that is unashamedly masculine in tone, yet quite refreshingly prepared to poke sticks at the male bravado. The obvious alpha-male of this stricken pack is Baldwin's cocksure photographer, but the film wastes no time in reversing the situation so that it is the threatened loner of Hopkins' isolated old wolf, Morse, who is compelled to show his latent leadership qualities. Thus, The Edge is as much a psychological drama as it is a heart-pounding runaround.
There are shades of Hopkins’ acclaimed Captain Bligh from The Bounty, and deep within those hypnotic eyes, and lurking inside that insidious, skull-delving voice is the obsessive intuition of Hannibal Lecter. His desperate practicality in the face of calamity even seems to recall his unhinged ventriloquist from Magic and the tenacity of his stalwart Para, Col. Frost, from A Bridge Too Far. And that ring of fire that he constructs to ward off the advances of the bear throughout the night is reminiscent of the tactics that his manic Van Helsing employs in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And his exultant acceptance at such a wilderness travail is also somewhat prescient of his role in Jon Turtletaub's Instinct. Hopkins had worked with Mamet on the mediocre Hannibal, but he is fantastic at taking the written character of Morse and smothering him with ticks and nuances and hidden depths. His performance is as idiosyncratic as we have come to expect, his diction and eloquence so at odds with his surroundings and the very company he is in. None of us can believe that Elle McPherson’s glamorous Mickey would ever have married for anything other than the money, but we still cling to the belief that he is the right man for her … all he needed was the appropriate impetus to bring him back to life, so that he could actually taste it and even lust for it, and out of the cage of his vainglorious love for academia. And, as Baldwin even says so tellingly, “Money-folks … you just don’t get it. But put you in an emergency and you really bloom!” The class divide and the envy is honed to a wicked point, yet there are so many shades of grey submerging that fine sociological scalpel that you still find it a lot easier to understand Robert Green's smug self-assurance than Morse's trivia-insulated emotional cave. Green is an enterprising opportunist but his own high self-opinion is often his ruination. A gaff over an evocative photo on the wall of the lodge they are staying in sort of points the way to his own headstrong and, more often than not, erroneous instincts. A nice touch is that the photo in question, of a local Indian hunter whom Green believes has the perfect face to add some contextual mood to the location shoot, is what sets them all up for such an apocryphal fall from grace.
The film uses visual and metaphorical poetry exceptionally well. The plight of the trio of survivors mirrors the love triangle that has been taking place. Gifts for Charles for his birthday – notably a penknife and a very prescient book on setting traps and navigating in the wild – and the device of having two “personalised” watches – one for Charles and one for Robert - play an intriguing part in the unfolding drama. A set-up that is used to depict Charles' knack for retaining pointless (or not so pointless, as it turns out) bits of trivia becomes a whole lot more pertinent once we reach the climax. And there are numerous other little story signposts that punctuate the film with a delightful symmetry.
A great, though clichéd early scene has Morse reacting to a birthday prank played on him – quite an extreme one at that, I might add – and his stunned and confused reverie in the immediate aftermath is highly convincing. That quiet madness that Hopkins does so well – Magic, The Elephant Man, Audrey Rose and that “beast” from Baltimore and a whole variety of others including his much more recent exorcist take, The Rite – is almost permanently on show here. His early moments of lonely suspicion at the main lodge put you in mind that he is a potential lunatic who could stalk and slash everyone else – if this were a different sort of film. His quiet grasping of the situation that they initially find themselves in after the crash, and his immediate take charge with dignity approach is also vaguely unnerving. The moment when the bear first lumbers into view and spies his intended prey on the ridge above is riveting not just for the sudden blood-freezing vision of nature at its most dangerous, but for the complete understanding and connection that Morse makes with the animal. They look at one another with a weird and altogether horrifying bond. It is almost as though Morse has stared into the eyes of his own destiny and received the realisation, or an epiphany, about what he must do. As the endurance test goes on and Morse becomes a much stronger individual despite a couple of monumental errors of judgement, those eyes betray yet more of that disquieting quality. Hopkins knows how to use his voice to great effect, too. Calm and insinuating, even in the face of calamity, you would never be fully sure if he was actually on your side, or if maybe he was the root cause of all your troubles. Only during the last stretch does he get to vent his spleen in that heart-lurching and accusatory Captain Bligh fashion, and it comes as a volatile shock. However, the bookworm turns very early on, in fact, and the film is much about his own coming to terms with the new animal that he has become, as it is about getting back home again. For Morse, the bear is the catalyst that will make him into the sort of man that had only ever lived inside his head. Yes, this is a patently contrived reading of the character and the situation, but Hopkins is able to sidetrack all the cloying obviousness that Mamet's screenplay and Tamahori's interpretation of it could have led to. Interestingly, the original casting choices for the part were Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Although I would have loved to have seen either of these two facing-off against the big bear, I doubt that either could have brought so much inherent oddness to Charles Morse as Hopkins does.
Although Morse is set up as something of an emotional paradox, when it all comes down to it, it is actually Baldwin's portrayal of Robert Green that is the most enigmatic.
The 30 Rock star had also worked with Mamet's material prior to The Edge with the acclaimed Glengarry Glen Ross, and he had jumped at the chance to get back to nature for this thrill-ride, even down to growing a leviathan Grizzly Adams beard to help get himself into character ... something that he ultimately wouldn't need. But it has taken me a few viewings over the years since I first saw it at the flicks to fully “get” how Baldwin is playing the love-rat. Has he been planning on killing off Charles Morse all along, as the threatened introvert seems to believe? Does he, in actuality, really like Charles as much as he claims … and does this, coupled with the fact that the bear is after them, cloud his darker intentions even from himself? What is his hang-up with his antagonist's wealth? It is far more deep-rooted than mere envy, as his continually collapsing arguments make abundantly apparent. Perhaps his stealth attack of pilfering Morse's wife is more of a way to strike back than it is an actual affair of the heart. He flares up at Charles even when it is clear that the rich-boy is only looking out for them and doing his best to keep them all alive. Is it just the realisation of his own shortcomings that goads him so? Or does he come to believe that Morse might just be unkillable figurehead of his dastardly desires? There is a lot of subterfuge and warped motivations for Baldwin to work with, both unmasked and covert. We know what Morse is up to right from the start, and despite Hopkins' incessant in-character curve-balling, we're fairly clued into his mindset all the way through. But Baldwin swings and veers about all over the place … and, of course, this is the brilliance of his performance. He is playing someone who is considerably mixed-up, frightened, excited and confused all at once. It is a difficult and quite extraordinary display of emotion. Every time he thinks he has the upper hand, Morse seems able to calmly wrest the power from his grasp. Even saving his rival's life becomes a thorn that Morse can then twist in his side with merely the measured words of placatory instruction. After the hundredth survival tip, we are about as ready to wring Morse's neck as Green is. Harold Perrineau gets off mightily easily by comparison, and Elle McPherson is memorable only for a completely retarded looking photo-shoot in which she appears to go native. So it is down to these two to slip and slide our emotions and concerns around what would, otherwise, be a run-of-the-mill thriller.
But Tamahori is determined to have us struggle right alongside our coiled-spring heroes.
The fumbling for matches with utterly frozen fingers just after the dunking in the Alaskan water is so tangible that you begin to shiver and shake, yourself. Scenes of the survivors sitting under a makeshift lean-to during a terrible rainstorm are also apt to have you snuggling into the sofa a little deeper. The anguish of discovering that they have inadvertently doubled-back on themselves is a real choker, and the misery of being cold, wet and hungry loses all the appeal that John Rambo imbued it with in First Blood. But what is slightly muffed, apart from the rather abrupt moving-on from one or two deaths with nary a comment from those who just about managed to avoid the same fate, is the passage of time. We can clearly see the transitions taking place for a couple of days and nights, but the impression is given of the men being out there in the wilderness for a lot longer than that … although nothing is ever made clear. We also only see them attempt to catch one squirrel and one fish – and on both occasions they are disturbed from the task at hand, so we never really get a handle on how they are actually getting by with the old rumble-tums. But then again, this is just nitpicking, because the film moves along at such a cracking pace, taking turns that are tragic, terrifying, poignant and suspenseful at every juncture, that you really don't need to worry about some details.
Although the credits and the critics cite The Edge as an accomplished two-header for Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, the truth of the matter is that there is a definite third star of the movie … and one who acts the pair of top-liners clear off their perch when it comes to realism and believability. The history of animal stars in littered with empathetic performances from dogs (Toto, Lassie, Old Yeller, Rin Tin Tin, K9, Marley) and Killer Whales (Orca) to kangaroos (Skippy), chimpanzees (Cheetah in Tarzan) and horses (Black Beauty, the Black Stallion), but whilst it is commonplace to have us feel for the creatures and to pluck our heartstrings and to impress us with their intelligence, charm and humanistic attributes, it is not so convincing to have us genuinely fear them. You think about it, whenever one of nature’s beasts goes blood-crazy and becomes the menace that our heroes ultimately have to despatch, there is always that sting of regret and remorse that we feel for its eventual plight as … well, an animal. Even Bruce the shark in Jaws elicits a weird combination of pity and admiration when the “sonofabitch” finally gives Brody that toothy smile, bites the big one and then sinks slowly down through red clouds of offal to the dark depths and into the box office history books.
But Bart the Bear, a Kodiak by breed and extremely photogenic to boot, is truly something else in the annals of animal character-actors.
The CG lion-faces in 1997’s equally barnstorming The Ghost And The Darkness were marvellously rendered so as to remove our inherent sympathy at seeing an animal, albeit an evil one, in pain … but they were, when all said and done, CG. Bart’s roaring titan of furious fur and fury is the real deal. His expressions, his glowering, predatory stare, his muscle-packed bulk as he thunders through the woods, demolishing all trees standing in his way, are all real, with only a couple of animatronic paws and claws inserted into the more extreme close-up violence. Lest we forget, though, he is only acting like he wants to devour the cast after extensive training and the close proximity of his handlers. But, jeez, it is exactly as though he knows what he is doing as if he has read the script, himself. Look at that face! Watch how he juts out his lower lip, cursing his human prey as he stares them down. Tremble as he pounds the ground with paws that could swat a rhino as easily as a mosquito, stamping out an almost gladiatorial taunt. Marvel as he deliberately tries to shake Hopkins' Morse from the makeshift tree-bridge they have hurled across a chasm by jumping up and down on end of it! And cower as he stands up straight to rake the sky and bellow at the heavens … all nine-and-a-half feet of him. RATHER OBVIOUS SPOILER AHEAD, FOLKS … and, for God’s sake, look at his final death scene. He could act a thousand human performers off the screen with that last, defeated and unblinking groan of incomprehension. Owned and trained by Doug and Lynne Seus, Bart had lots of previous credits, such as The Bear, Clan Of The Cave Bear, The Great Outdoors and even Legends Of The Fall, starring opposite none other Anthony Hopkins, so he was already a veteran, and a consummate professional. Any monster would have some degree of presence, even if, like the mutated Grizzly in the ludicrous Prophecy, is was just laughable. But Bart is a looming bogeyman of titanic proportions even throughout the stretches when he is not around. There really is nowhere to hide from this guy, and his savagery seems almost occult-spawned. Composer Jerry Goldsmith, who wraps The Edge up in an amazing overall score of breathtaking expansiveness, is extremely keen to supply a pulse-pounding bear motif that is his answer to John Williams' Jaws theme. Whenever the beast comes around to play, he is accompanied by a massive barrage of gut-churning orchestral bestiality. Pitch-bent trombones, coiling strings, clicking xylophone, drums, bongos and the dreaded hammer-strike of an anvil all convey the absolutely non-negotiable terms of an encounter with the bear. And you would swear that Bart can hear the music too, such is breadth of his considerable menace. It is no surprise that the first of the film's end credits is a big thankyou to Bart and his trainers … and it is equally unsurprising that some voices were raised in the hope that even the Academy would make some form of official acknowledgement of his remarkable performance in The Edge! But a cameo appearance at the 1998 Oscar ceremony was as close as he got to an award.
Tamahori directs with lots of visual style and with an emphasis on sheer power and aggression. Employing ace cinematography from Donald McAlpine (who has certainly had lots of experience shooting exhilarating exteriors with Predator, Medicine Man and The Chronicles Of Narnia to his name), he makes sure that the vast backdrop of Alberta, Canada, standing in for the wilds of Alaska, is as much a character as the struggling protagonists. Sweeping views across the snow-speckled peaks and down through carved gorges add a mythical quality to the bleak wooded glens. The widescreen frame is brimming with immaculate compositions that comment on the pure beauty of the landscape and on how tiny and irrelevant unwary travellers caught within it really are. Many a director would rely too much on such a deeply rugged tapestry to chew into the narrative and eat up screentime that would be better served with telling the story and, whilst Tamahori isn't always able to resist the same temptation, he doesn't let such complex personalities as those of Morse and Green become swallowed up by the setting. The director cut his teeth and made the critics sit up and take notice with the brutal Kiwi drama Once Were Warriors, and then sort of meandered with the disappointing Mulholland Falls, and only the marathon sword fight in Die Another Day raised anything more than a flicker of the sort of excitement that he commands here. At first he doesn't appear to be the right man for the job. The Edge is a curious mixture of masculine endeavour, psychological cat-and-mouse and self-discovery and although he may have been more at home with the harsh and physical elements that form the unyielding backbone, the emotional quagmire that result from the personal conflict could have proved to have been a deadfall trap for himself. But, thankfully, he is able to tackle both sides of the battle with considered maturity. However, mindgames aside, his bear attacks are, quite simply, the most adrenalized and terrifying of their type that the screen has ever witnessed. I have discussed the guilty pleasures of William Girdler’s awesome B-flick exploitationer Grizzly many times before (not least in its comprehensive DVD review), and that is still the “go-to” flick for ursine horror, but The Edge has, well, the edge when it comes to pulverising, heart-pounding, in-yer-face ferocity and all-out, in-the-moment suspense. There is a palpable rawness to the attack scenes that generates an inescapable sense of panic. You get the feeling that all “acting” has been jettisoned and that Hopkins, Baldwin and Perrineau are genuinely just reacting to a near ten-foot, 1500 pound bear coming at them, tooth and claw. Tamahori never made good on the promise that he showed with this powerful cocktail of reluctant heroics and spiritual sacrifice, with the paltry Next and XXX2: The Next Level sitting on his rather meagre résume.
The film is like a Boy's Own adventure … except that these boys are complete novices in this particular adventure, more like a bunch of office suits thrust into the middle of the company team-building exercise from Hell. Or City Slickers without the laughs or the sentimentality. It is also a fantastic and galvanising thriller that deserves more accolades.
For some inexplicable reason, the Blu-ray version of the film fades to black a good few seconds earlier the the DVD does which, if you know the film, seems to rob some poignancy from the last image. However, this is a very small gripe about an otherwise tremendously bravura and enthralling slice of great outdoors action that really does have lots of repeat value.
The Edge comes highly recommended.
Our Review Ethos