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The Edge

Although thin character motivation and some far-fetched plotting strain credulity in the late going, for the most part "The Edge" is a tense, visceral battle-of-wits thriller played out against a spectacular wilderness background. An elemental genre piece with an extra veneer of class applied in all departments, this looks like a solid fall entry for Fox.

Charles Morse - Anthony Hopkins Robert Green - Alec Baldwin Mickey Morse - Elle Macpherson Stephen - Harold Perrineau Styles - L.Q. Jones

Although thin character motivation and some far-fetched plotting strain credulity in the late going, for the most part “The Edge” is a tense, pleasurably visceral battle-of-wits thriller played out against a spectacular wilderness background. An elemental genre piece with an extra veneer of class applied in all departments, this looks like a solid fall entry for Fox.

Until now, one has never expected to hear David Mamet dialogue exchanged in front of rugged mountains, soaring timber and big skies, nor to figure this urban-oriented playwright as the author of a film in which the action highlights include bear attacks. Granted, this original screenplay, originally entitled “The Bookworm,” is far from vintage Mamet, at least on the basis of the evidence onscreen, but it does contain more than the usual share of wit, cleverness and mordant character shadings for this sort of fare while still keeping the film’s thrust very mainstream.

A considerable amount of the amusement stems from beholding the seemingly limitless morsels of knowledge pouring from the central figure of Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins), a billionaire of a certain age who accompanies his supermodel trophy wife, Mickey (Elle Macpherson), on a photo shoot in the pristine wilds of Alaska. Checking into a cushy lakefront lodge along with the couple is an entourage whose chief members are cocky fashion photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin) and his assistant, Stephen (Harold Perrineau).

With the group pausing long enough to celebrate Charles’ birthday and with the script dropping such tidbits as the presence of man-killing kodiak bears in the area, pic generates just enough interest in the leading characters before sending Robert and Stephen off on a short private-plane trip to even more remote territory in search of a particular Indian to pose with Mickey, with Charles going along for the ride.

The small plane crashes into a lake in a sequence made all the more powerful by having been shot at full speed, without repetition or overdone intercutting. Stranded without food, warm clothing or any means of communication, the three men must formulate a strategy for survival and a return to safety. Despite Charles’ earlier demurral that “most of my knowledge is theoretical,” it is he who instantly proves to be the most practical and resourceful of the trio, while the two younger men demonstrate they’re about as useful in the wild as Woody Allen would be.

On their first full day in the middle of nowhere, the group manages to survive a bear attack, but after two days of hiking they wind up right where they started, and Stephen suffers a deep cut in his leg. The injury proves fatal when his blood attracts the bear, which attacks during a nocturnal thunderstorm in a genuinely chilling sequence.

So now it’s just Charles and Robert, whose mutual suspicion comes increasingly to the fore but must nonetheless remain secondary to the fact that each needs the other if either of them is to have a chance of getting out of the woods alive. Through it all, Charles retains the upper hand by remaining lucid, rational and in control, while the more physically fit Robert loses his cool on numerous occasions, repeatedly underscoring his reliance upon the older man by asking, “What are we going to do, Charles?”

As the men work their way out of the trees and into terrain where they have a hope of being spotted, Charles has no doubt that the bear will track them down and prepares an ingenious, if chancy, plan of defense. This simple man-vs.-beast gambit is ultimately more exciting, and more convincingly dramatized, than the inter-human conflict, which pivots on the question of whether Robert is having an affair with Charles’ young wife and what either of them is going to do about it.

If Robert is plotting to kill Charles, as the tycoon at least rhetorically suspects from the beginning, it would seem to be a very odd plan indeed, since the risk involved in committing murder would be far too great for the simple benefit of enjoying Mickey’s favors, which he is in a position to continue doing in any event. Perhaps the circumstance of being stranded in the wild creates an opportunity for undetected murder that didn’t exist before, but what were Robert’s intentions had the plane not crashed? Underlying motivations, as well as the decisive actions they cause, are decidedly murky here, pushing the drama into hokey territory toward the end.

But up until then, director Lee Tamahori, after his misstep with “Mulholland Falls,” moves things along at a muscular clip and employs all means at his disposal to deliver a physically powerful entertainment. Everything from the impressive and fresh Alberta, Canada, locations (doubling for Alaska) and Donald M. McAlpine’s crisp widescreen lensing to Neil Travis’ tight editing and Jerry Goldsmith’s fine, varied score contributes to the film’s invigorating dynamic.

Hopkins has it all over the other thesps here simply by virtue of playing an exceptionally bright fellow, and by underplaying the role at that. Baldwin, while physically and emotionally credible, can do little to expand the built-in limitations of his sketchily written part. Macpherson has no trouble doing what comes naturally as a model extraordinaire, Perrineau is suitably uptight as a city fellow way out of his element, and L.Q. Jones registers a tasty character turn as the lodge boss.

The bear battles are certainly among the most frightening and credible human-animal fights ever staged for the screen, and credit here must go to Bart the Bear, his trainer Doug Seus and the various hands responsible for animatronic and hydraulic bear action.

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The Edge

Production: A 20th Century Fox release of an Art Linson production. Produced by Linson. Executive producer, Lloyd Phillips. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Screenplay, David Mamet.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Donald M. McAlpine; editor, Neil Travis; music, Jerry Goldsmith; production design, Wolf Kroeger; supervising art director, Rick Roberts; set decoration, Janice Blackie-Goodine; costume design, Julie Weiss; sound (Dolby digital), Eric J. Batut; visual effects, Peerless Camera Co. Ltd.; stunt coordinator, Betty Thomas; assistant director, Philip A. Patterson; second unit camera, Roger Vernon; casting, Donna Isaacson. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, L.A., Aug. 20, 1997. (In Toronto Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 MIN.

With: Charles Morse - Anthony Hopkins Robert Green - Alec Baldwin Mickey Morse - Elle Macpherson Stephen - Harold Perrineau Styles - L.Q. Jones

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