Mel Gibson resurrects himself in engaging pulp thriller

David G. Hughes on Jean-François Richet’s ‘Blood Father’ (2016)

Mel Gibson has become an easy target and a gold mine for the salacious-seeking tabloid press. Almost anything he says, however uncontroversial, like describing Batman v Superman (2016) as “a piece of shit,” is spun as the anti-Semitic codger causing a hullabaloo again. But say what you want about his politics and his besmirching gaffs (almost every review does), no one can take away this codger’s charisma, his talent as a movie star and his aptitude as a filmmaker.

Gibson belongs to a sect of conservative Hollywood auteurs, alongside Clint Eastwood, that specialise in proficiently made brooding dramas. No flash, no dance, just a camera and a script. He also has a habitual and seemingly sincere belief in the possibility of redemption through violence; is there a director that has such an extreme obsession with primordial ultra-violence? Consider the bloodthirsty battle scenes in Braveheart (1995), the torture-porn in the torture-bore of The Passion of the Christ (2004), or the shock-and-awe ferocity of Apocalypto (2006). Word on the street is that his latest directorial effort, Hacksaw Ridge (2016), is no different either. Blend this with his traditionalist Sedevacantist Catholicism and it makes for a polarising and beguiling auteur figure. Gibson isn’t the director in his most-recent “comeback” film, Blood Father, but he might as well have been. While not to discredit the good work of Jean-François Richet, who is entirely adept in his role, this is Gibson’s film through and through – another well-made story of violent redemption with religious undertones.

Gibson plays John Link, an ex-convict on parole with a sinful past. As Hollywood heroics dictate, Link is trying to live the uninterrupted quiet life within the scorched elements, like a John Ford cowboy if John Wayne ever played a tattoo artist. Only that his wayward runaway daughter returns to him with trouble and Link is forced to assume a paternalistic protector role and save his daughter and his soul in the process. But, contrary to how it sounds, this is not your average revenge story about an ex-bad-ass daddy using his particular set of retired skills to deliver justice in the punitive and capital sort of way. Despite his broody look, Gibson doesn’t play the alpha-authority figure who has omnipotent power to chastise sinister brown people. In fact, his total lack of control over his rebellious daughter and their various sticky situations is a source of much comedy throughout the film. He’s a man with a violent past, but he’s also very reluctant to engage in new violence. Gibson’s unique talent as an actor is harnessed in this characterisation; despite the solemn tone of the marketing material, this is in fact an energetic and very fun fugitive thriller, imbued with strong buddy-genre traditions as father and daughter bicker while escaping the Mexican cartel. The same nervous energy and eccentric zaniness that Gibson tapped to create Detective Martin Riggs makes its joyous comeback.

Yet Gibson and his public persona has shifted dramatically since those days. Accordingly, this isn’t Lethal Weapon (1987), nor even Mad Max (1979), it is Blood Father, and it may rank with those films as the sort of perfect Friday night entertainment that Gibson was best at delivering in his uncontroversial prime. We saw glimpses of it in How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2012) and Edge of Darkness (2010), but in this seemingly generic pulpy actioner, director Jean-François Richet helps to perfect the formulae. Sure its derivative as any genre film is, but Gibson elevates the material; he has lived a life since his young cops and robbers days and wears this physical and public atrophy in his performance. With a long grey beard, white receding hair and fractured weary skin, he is no longer 1985’s Sexiest Man Alive, but as an actor he has gained something more: a strangely animalistic beauty, honesty in performance and a Biblical demeanour. It’s a great physical performance, and it’s an honest one, which is surely what acting is all about. Naturally this brings a lot to an otherwise archetypal character and the chemistry with his daughter (played brilliantly by Erin Moriarty).

Whether you like him personally or not, Gibson is an on-screen film talent that Blood Father forces us to admire. Going back to his arid and bloody exploitation roots, Mel has resurrected himself on screen. When his films are this muscular and entertaining, maybe, just maybe, he deserves to be making them more often.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.