Mel Gibson makes a comeback in a rage-filled revenge film

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Erin Moriarty and Mel Gibson in Blood Father

The narrative is familiar: a celebrity falls from grace. That celebrity is hated by mostly everyone while they try to silence their demons and atone for all the weird, terrible shit they did that led to the aforementioned fall from grace. Then, when the world feels ready, the celebrity makes a comeback; usually, this comeback attempts to paint the celebrity in a much different light, either highlighting their flaws, poking fun at their image or simply completely flipping the tables on public perception.

Mel Gibson’s tried all of them since his much-publicized alcohol-induced breakdown 10 years ago: he made the serious attempt at capital A acting (Edge of Darkness), the quirky, emotional dramedy (The Beaver), the self-referential cameos (Machete Kills, The Expendables 3) and the ill-advised, straight-to-video return to form (Get the Gringo). None of them really worked — certainly none of them rehabilitated the star’s image, regardless of their quality. With Blood Father, we have the last stage of Gibson penance: rage. Anarchic, go-for-broke, ugly rage.

John Link is an ex-con, trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow after a life spent in and out of jail, chasing the bottom of the bottle and hanging around with unsavoury white-power and biker types. Two years sober, he lives in a trailer park next to his sponsor (William H. Macy), barely eking out a living as a tattoo artist. He still reels from the disappearance of his pre-teen daughter, who ran away from her mother’s home years earlier; his trailer is covered with pictures of her and of her missing ad. Much to his surprise, Lydia (Erin Moriarty) comes calling one day in more-than-dire straits: it turns out that she got involved with a shady cartel dude (Diego Luna) and, in an attempt to protect an innocent woman he was forcing her to kill, she kinda sorta killed him dead. Now his men are after her, forcing Link to break his hard-earned parole and quite a few bones in the process.

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It’s obvious why the role appealed to Gibson: for all intents and purposes, he is John Link, plagued by years of drinking and poor decisions that have taken a toll on his mind and body. Heavily bearded, his face deeply creased and weary, Gibson looks all right for a random 60-year-old man, but looks rough considering he’s Mel Gibson. He’s surprisingly muscular but lumbering, his gait betraying years of bad decisions. In a much different world, Gibson would not have picked a role like this to get back in the public’s good graces — Link is volatile, openly racist, violent and prone to fits of unjustified rage, a far cry from the kind of steel-tempered saviour Liam Neeson plays in his similar old-man action vehicles.

As far as comeback vehicles go, though, Blood Father is hardly transcendent: it’s punchy B-movie pulp, effective but hardly the kind of thing that wins awards. This kind of revenge movie has more or less remained the same since its inception, and director Jean-François Richet delivers plenty of the kind of thrills we’re expecting from such a vehicle, including an extended cameo by Tarantino regular Michael Parks as a particularly unsavoury acquaintance of Link’s, a Sicario hitman with face tattoos, Gibson on a Harley and a gross roadhouse bar filled with quasi-troglodytic lowlifes. It’s got some witty bits of dialogue and Richet handles the action scenes well. It’s decent as far as pulp goes, if by the numbers, but it separates itself from the anonymous herd through two factors.

The first factor is the character of Lydia. Usually, in films like this, the daughter to be rescued is as white as the driven snow. She’s a delicate flower to be protected, and the idea of her being soiled by these dastardly criminals drives the father wild. Lydia’s not like that; when Link sees her for the first time in years, it’s the first notion he has of her being a woman rather than a little girl. On top of that, she’s a coked-out, vodka-swilling mess who isn’t exactly innocent — not the most likeable damsel-in-distress scenario, but a much more organic one than these kinds of reactionary boomer rage fugues tend to be.

The second factor, of course, is Gibson. He’s a more compelling screen figure here than he’s been in a long time (I would argue way before his fall from grace), partially for how worn out he looks and partially for how much he seems to be exorcising in this role. Most actors take a role in a movie of this scope for the money; Gibson seems to be in it for something else, a festering mess of insecurity and rage that threatens to bubble over. He’s less the kind of witty badass you may have come to expect and more functionally unstable — which is acting, of course. Right?

In terms of comebacks, I doubt that this fairly generic actioner will really put Gibson back in the little black books of high-powered executives. It’s good (and in the pantheon of the kind of work that Liam Neeson and Nicolas Cage are also intermittently putting out, probably verging closer to great) and probably likely to become a dad favourite once it hits constant cable rotation, but more importantly, it shows a Gibson who has maybe given up on morphing back into the Mel Gibson we came to love. I don’t know where I stand on whether he should be forgiven for being a giant dumpster fire of a celebrity all those years ago, but I am interested in seeing what this craggy, newly reinvigorated Gibson is up for. ■

Blood Father opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 12. Watch the trailer here:

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