SOMETIMES A GOOD BEAR is all you need. And the kodiak in "The Edge" is really excellent -- obscenely large, lumpy with vicious muscle, his beady eyes emanating an evil intelligence, his slavering mouth filled with horrid teeth that yearn to rip off bloody mouthfuls of human flesh. Whenever things begin to drag in this entertaining Jack London-ish tale, the bear makes his appearance. He's so terrifying that one suspects he may inspire a new scary-animal fad in Hollywood, consigning puny li'l critters like great white sharks and giant pythons to the trash can of when-animals-attack history.
"The Edge" works two venerable genres: the enemies-thrown-together-in-extremis schtick and the 20th-century-city-dweller-survives-the-wilderness caper. It pulls off the second, simpler theme more successfully than the first. As a straight survival yarn, "The Edge" isn't bad at all. It's a bit reminiscent of those great action stories I used to read voraciously as a boy, like "Leiningen Versus the Ants" or "The Most Dangerous Game," in which human ingenuity defeats the forces of nature. Set against an ominous, spectacular background (it was shot in Alberta, Canada), this tautly paced yarn taps into primal fears: What happens when the human animal has to compete with animals on the animals' terms? Ten thousand years of tool-making haven't extinguished the ancient pull of this scenario.
As a psychological thriller, "The Edge" has its points -- assisted immeasurably by the magisterial presence of Anthony Hopkins -- but despite some sharp and at times adventurous writing by David Mamet, it can't quite overcome its clichid love-triangle setup. Still, there are enough flashes of intensity, enough moments of eccentric insight, to make this considerably better than standard trapped-in-the-ice fare. Even Mamet dialogue sprinkled on top of a Hollywood plot is better than what one usually gets in these kinds of movies. (Alas, the characters do not speak pure Mametese. I was kind of hoping this would be "Glengarry Glen Plane Crash," filled with dialogue like, "What I am fucking telling you, Charles, is that we have a fucking bear situation here. A fucking bear situation, Charles." But no.)
Charles Morse (Hopkins) is an introverted billionaire whose mind is stuffed with facts gleaned from his favorite and incessant pastime, reading: When we first see him, at a remote Alaska lodge, he is reading a book about how to survive in the wilderness. Despite his knowledge, his private plane and his preternaturally smiling-eyed model wife, Mickey (Elle MacPherson, who flops like a curvaceous sea bass when required to project any emotion other than five-lump sweetness), Morse is vaguely unhappy, obscurely disconnected from the world and from himself. Hopkins' intelligent, gravely nuanced reading of Morse brings out his isolation, but also his shy sweetness and, above all, his underlying toughness. We sense that this man is at once lost and formidable -- someone who has been merely rehearsing for life, but who will answer its call when it comes.
Morse is traveling with an entourage that includes Mickey, various hangers-on and smart-alecky fashion photographer Robert Green (played vigorously by Alec Baldwin). As they ride on a small plane to a remote lake in search of a local character to use in a photo shoot, Green begins prodding Morse about the loneliness of being wealthy, about how you would never know if someone was really your friend, etc. When Morse responds, "So why are you my friend?" Green says, "You've got a lot of style -- and your wife's pretty cute, too." To which Morse replies, "So how are you planning to kill me, Bob?"
At that moment, a pilot's nightmare happens: A flock of birds crashes into the plane. Director Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors," "Mulholland Falls") shoots action well, and the chaotic, obscenity-filled moments when the plane falls out of the sky and crashes into a lake are harrowing. The pilot is killed; Morse, Green and Green's assistant, Stephen (Harold Perrineau) manage to survive, but they're lost in forbidding country and no one back in civilization knows where they are.
Tamahori and Mamet's aim is to transcend the action genre by setting up a tense, ambiguous relationship between Morse and Green, in which Green's intentions (does he want to kill Morse or not?) remain nerve-wrackingly obscure while the men struggle to get out alive. They succeed only fitfully, mostly because the struggle-to-survive theme overpowers the psychological subtext. When a man-killing 1,400-pound kodiak bear is jumping out at you, it's hard to linger on Pinteresque undercurrents. Besides, we don't really know enough about Green, or his relationship with either Morse or Mickey, to be drawn into the desired state of paranoia. When the plot payoff comes, it's disappointingly crude, and doesn't seem entirely plausible.
But if the betrayal theme doesn't take off, Mamet and Hopkins -- for it is his evocation of Morse's dignity and courage that is at the heart of the film -- do manage at times to create the sense, very unusual in adventure movies, that something matters more than their epic struggle, maybe more than even their survival. In the most haunting scene in the film, Morse vows to change his life after he gets out. "I never did know anybody who actually changed their life," says Green. "You'll be the first." As they stand in front of a magnificent, deadly range of mountains, the scene feels like something out of a Rilke poem -- a genuinely philosophical, doubt-inspiring moment.
Mostly, though, "The Edge" is a solid man-against-nature tale, with much of the entertainment value provided by watching Hopkins perform his high-end Boy Scout tricks -- making a compass out of a needle and putting it on a leaf, making a squirrel trap, etc. -- and, of course, by that big, bad bear. The film contains many satisfyingly gory kodiak moments (the fate suffered by one character ranks particularly high on the unpleasantness scale). If it has no other tangible effect on the world, one hopes that "The Edge" will at least inspire lazy backpackers in brown-bear country to hang their food in trees.