"The Edge" is superb, a rippingly old-fashioned man vs. wilderness adventure movie with a new-fashioned brain, courtesy of scriptwriter David Mamet. Until the end of the movie, that is, when Mamet is so insistent on being Mamet the tough guy poet of machismo and territorial imperatives that he outsmarts himself royally.
Put it this way: Bart the Bear is the star of the movie and everyone knows it, even Anthony Hopkins, one of the best movie actors ever to grace a soundstage or a canvas-back chair. And when Bart isn't around at the end to scare the bejabbers out of Hopkins and Alec Baldwin and those of us in the audience, Hopkins' and Baldwin's battle over Elle MacPherson and a billion dollar fortune doesn't amount to a hill of bear claws.
The drama of psychological conflict and self-revelation has had its block knocked off by a thousand-pound creature quite capable of doing it literally, with one distracted swipe.
In fact, Friday is a movie opening day for movies that are a little too smart for their own good. "ER" director Mimi Leder's taut and tense and dandy big screen debut "The Peacemaker" -- the first film from the docket of DreamWorks, the new Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg studio -- thinks it has all manner of things to tell us about war in the Balkans. Mostly, though, what it has to tell us is how difficult it is to track a rogue nuke-jacker from the Ural Mountains to Manhattan's 42nd Street.
Meanwhile, back at "The Edge," it's like this: Anthony Hopkins plays Charles, a billionaire who reads all the time. Elle MacPherson plays his young wife, a supermodel who, at night, takes off all her clothes, stretches out in bed, tells her husband she's hungry and asks him to get her a sandwich. (Which he does without demur. He's that kind of husband.)
Alec Baldwin is the snake in the grass, the fashion photographer who brings the magic number of this particular menage to trois.
They're all in Alaska, see, on a fashion photo shoot. Everything is just peachy. A birthday is celebrated. Sam Peckinpah's great and grizzled old character actor L.Q. Jones is around the lodge to confer leather-faced authenticity and grizzled backwoods wisdom. The city dudes are all roughing it very congenially.
Charles knows that the photographer and his startlingly beautiful long-framed young wife are a wee bit chummier than photographer and subject ought to be but if you'll pardon the expression, he doesn't have the pictures to prove it. Nevertheless, he asks the photographer point-blank how he intends to kill him off.
At this point, they're without Elle and up in a seaplane over the gorgeous wilderness, looking for a Native American guide whose face will provide the photographer with a kind of Ralph Lauren idea of "authenticity."
Two seconds later -- in a harrowingly well-shot and edited sequence -- the plane has crashed into the drink leaving Hopkins, Baldwin and Co. to fend for themselves in a wilderness that's about as hostile as wildernesses get.
Hopkins, who's not just a rich capitalist but a walking database on aggression and survival, turns into a book-smart Robinson Crusoe, using his book smarts to out-think Mother Nature at her nastiest.
Add a deranged Kodiak bear who chases Hopkins and Baldwin around with visions of turning them into canapes and you have the movie -- until the last half-hour, that is. That's when Mamet takes all the territorial tension and byplay over Elle that makes for superb seasoning until the bear shows up and tries to make a meal out of it after the bear is out of the picture.
Pepper and oregano are all very nice but a meal they do not make.
But then Mamet may not be entirely to blame here. He's said, very wittily, that producer Art Linson's idea of this movie was to do Kurosawa's "Ikiru" ("To Live") -- about a man who discovers the meaning of life -- in Alaska.
With a bear.
So all the post-"Kodiak" drama at the end may merely be the gilt-edge screenwriter-for-hire fulfilling the role he was signed on for.
It may sound appallingly precious to say that the bear is the best actor in the film but in this case, it's quite literally true. Nor is it that peculiar either when you consider the fact that Bart the Bear already starred in a truly great nature film (Jean-Jacques Annaud's "The Bear") and has a former actor for a trainer.
Whatever it is that Bart does in this movie -- acting or something else -- it will curl your toes. It proves that all the Spielbergian animatronics and computer-generated hoo-ha in the world aren't really a match for a real ursine maniac on a tear.
Director Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors," "Mulholland Drive") stages most of the action here brilliantly. The scenery is magnificent and the bear and Hopkins and Baldwin are the movie. And a hell of a movie it is, even without Mamet's Higher Life Meaning.
Rating: *** 1/2
Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin fight off each other and a large Kodiak bear.
Written by David Mamet. Directed by Lee Tamahori.
Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.