Murky tale of nuclear intrigue

2010-05-10 00:00

THIS film begins with an arresting image: a quiet body of water in which one, then two, then three bodies mysteriously float to the surface.

In the more mundane world of a busy train station, Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson in his first acting role in some time), meets a young woman, his daughter Emma.

He takes her home, where it soon becomes clear that she is unwell. As they emerge from his house on the way to see a doctor, a car drives past, there is a shout of “Craven!”, and a shotgun blast hits her in the chest.

Gibson’s character is a police detective, and the assumption is that his daughter was the unintended recipient of a shot fired by a vengeful criminal.

He refuses to step back from the investigation, again on the assumption that he is best placed to recognise who among the criminals he has tracked down would want to kill him. Except nothing likely emerges.

Then we see a shadowy conference in a parking garage, where British hard man Ray Winstone assures a corporate type that he has everything in hand.

As Craven investigates, it becomes clear that Emma had a secret life about which he was previously incurious. She had brushed off his inquiries about her job at a nuclear lab, and refused to discuss her boyfriend.

As he goes through her things, he finds an illegal handgun, and tracks down its owner, a terrified young man who is under surveillance. He also discovers a Geiger counter, which reveals that she had been exposed to radiation. So now we know what was ailing her, but not why.

Craven doggedly pursues the clues to Emma’s workplace, a huge nuclear research facility where he meets the boss, smoothly played by Danny Huston, so we know he is evil before he even demonstrates it.

Bit by bit, Craven teases open a tangled web involving illegal nuclear manufacturing and the U.S. government, with more and more people turning up dead. Winstone proves to be an ally, even though he’s in the employ of the other side.

There is plenty of violence, some pretty cartoonish, that seemed to divert the audience, but I’m not sure the point of the tangled tale came through clearly enough. The film is based on a highly acclaimed BBC TV miniseries, which undoubtedly had the time to depict the evil more clearly.

In the remake, in which the action is switched from Yorkshire to Massachusetts and brought into the present day (the original was set in 1985), the process of Craven’s search for clues looms larger than what those clues reveal. In his “comeback” role, Gibson plays a simple man, loving father, Boston Catholic — but bloody-minded enough to follow a confusing trail.

This tale of nuclear weapons evil in corporate America fails to make its points sharply enough. As I drove home, coincidentally, I listened to Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, a scathing indictment of the manufacturers of weapons. The point came through far more clearly in his pithy poetry than in this rather murky movie.

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