Mel Gibson, whose reputation has been tainted by racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist bigotry, seems to be on a journey of career—and perhaps personal—atonement. The question is, could 2016 Gibson be granted a comeback? Separate art from reality all you might, but it’s still uncomfortable to digest his performance on the screen. So perhaps the most surprising news is, a movie called Blood Father starring a 2016 Mel Gibson is actually a lot better than it has any right to be. Because Hollywood has a knack for absolving its members (usually of the white, male variety) of their sins, a Mel Gibson comeback in 2016 is already in motion. But here, curiously, it’s French director Jean-François Richet who’s throwing America’s previously favorite action star a bone with this adaptation of Peter Craig‘s novel (The Town).
It’s not wrong to say Mel Gibson is good in this movie, because he is. Partly it’s because he’s essentially playing the uncomfortable parts of himself. We’re first introduced to his ex-con character, John Link, at an AA meeting, and the apologetic weariness deep-set in his eyes carries an unshakeable reality. His character is a recovering alcoholic whose rage fits flicker in and out, and if that sounds like a role that wouldn’t have required much research, that’s probably right. There are even a couple unnervingly real scenes in which Gibson calls out white supremacists, while his daughter schools him on a racist comment he makes about Mexican immigrants. (Again, self-flagellation for personal atonement?)
Blood Father has been compared to B-movie grindhouse of decades past, and fans of that genre will be somewhat satisfied. John Link leads an otherwise idyllic life as a tattoo artist on parole until he has to tap into his criminal past (and gun stash) to help out his estranged 17-year-old daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty), who has a bounty on her head for shooting her crime lord boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna). Now she’s got sicarios (Mexican hitmen) on her tail, and this is where the film takes a Taken-lite/Jaume Collet-Serra turn (the director of all the other Liam Neeson thrillers).
Blood Father is scrappier and grittier than his contemporary’s set of actioners, if not only for the fact that when Liam Neeson pretends to be a washed up has-been in Run All Night, we all know it’s just acting, whereas Mel Gibson’s washed up-ness is sorely meta. Neeson’s “very particular set of skills” are traded in for Gibson’s everyman ones, with a wrath that’s harder to control. Whether he’s scolding his daughter or shooting at his enemies, he carries the quality of tumbleweed on fire. Link’s AA sponsor, Kirby (William H. Macy), spends most of the time worried about his uncorked friend with the same quality of “uh-oh” that the audience will feel while watching the movie.
The setting—somewhere around the California-Mexico border—is its own major character in Blood Father. We see Mel Gibson’s attempt at dusting himself (and his career) off in the desert landscape while becoming progressively more rugged during the film’s runtime (he ditches his flannel shirt for a tank top and eventually his car for a motorcycle). It’ll make you recall Mad Max-era Gibson, with added years and a troubled history that John Link adapts as his own.
The major hold-up with Blood Father, though, isn’t an inability to accept Mel Gibson as an action hero again. It’s that the movie, for all it promises in its set-up, is generic and bland. It trades in fancy CGI for straightforward action chase sequences, which is commendable, but that direction asks for an organic thrill—something a movie of this budget and kind is totally capable of. Unfortunately, this moderately good time of a movie only jump-starts the ride without going the full stretch. The most exciting scene in the movie is probably an unexpected attack at a motel where Link and his daughter are hiding out, and the most frightening villain is a hitman with face tattoos who slow-chases in a Michael Myers way. So much could have been done with this bit, but like all the other action scenes in Blood Father, things come to a halt before the going gets really good.
With Blood Father, Gibson’s comeback doesn’t fully rev up. But it doesn’t toss him from the motorcycle, either.
Blood Father opens in Los Angeles on Friday, August 12 and expands to other markets (and VOD) on August 26.