Tuesday 25 October 2016

Film: Resurrection of Mel the hero

Paul Whitington

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

Beefed-up: Gibson makes his big-screen action hero return with Blood Father
Beefed-up: Gibson makes his big-screen action hero return with Blood Father

It seems apt that Mel Gibson's plans include a film about the resurrection of Christ, because he's currently experiencing something of a resurrection himself. His career seemed fatally damaged by a string of controversies that dogged him through the 2000s, but Gibson is nothing if not a fighter, and has refused to shuffle off quietly into the night.

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Later this year he'll release a challenging war film he's directed called Hacksaw Ridge: set during the Battle of Okinawa, it stars Andrew Garfield as a conscientious objector who becomes a hero while serving as an army medic. It's his first film as director since Apocalypto, in 2006, and Mel plans to follow it with a sequel to his controversial 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ.

But he hasn't giving up on the acting, either, and yesterday a film was released here that reminds us why Gibson became a superstar in the first place. He is and always has been a hugely charismatic actor, and in Blood Father he delivers a typically bombastic performance playing, shall we say, a concerned parent.

War veteran and ex-con John Link lives in a desert trailer park and earns his living as a tattoo artist. He's a recovering alcoholic, and plagued by many demons, chief among them the unexplained disappearance of his teenage daughter four years previously.

When she turns up suddenly, it initially seems like a good thing, until John discovers she's a meth addict and is on the run from Mexican gangsters. They turn up looking for her, and it's not long before they find out exactly the kind of man they're dealing with. Ferociously pumped up and sporting a white beard and crazy hair, Mel looks a bit like King Lear on steroids, but is very good as a character who suffers biblically, a criminal Job.

There are moments of wild-eyed hamminess, but they seem entirely in keeping with a film determined not to take itself too seriously, and crucially, at 60-years-old, Gibson is still convincing as an action hero. The actor isn't planning to leave it at that, either, and is currently considering starring in another all-action movie, Every Other Weekend.

Which is good news if you ask me, because Gibson has always been a grade-A movie star, unpredictable and compelling, and the kind of actor you watch no matter how good or bad a film he's in. The older Gibson bears the scars of his adventures: his handsome face is lined with the signs of a life lived hard, but for me that has only added to his screen appeal.

He reminds you now of a Spencer Tracy or a Humphrey Bogart, and it would be great to see him tackling bigger dramatic roles as he gets older. Because while his involvement in the Lethal Weapon series had the effect of pigeon-holing him as an action star, he's a much more accomplished actor than that and most people forget that he started out in Shakespeare and Beckett plays in Australia.

Born in Peekskill, New York, on January 3, 1956, Mel Colmcille Gibson was raised in the US until the age of 12, when he moved with his parents to Sydney. His late mother, Anne Reilly, was born in Ireland: Gibson cherishes his connection with the country, and visits often. His father, however, is another kettle of fish.

Hutton Gibson is an outspoken advocate of traditional Catholicism who has questioned the Holocaust and described the Second Vatican Council as a "Masonic plot backed by the Jews". The sixth of 11 children, Gibson was raised in ultra-Catholic fashion, but there's always been a conflict between the restrictions of his father's faith and his own more liberal instincts.

After leaving his Christian Brothers' school, Gibson enrolled at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, where he studied the classics and starred alongside Judy Davis in a student production of Romeo and Juliet. Before he'd even graduated he'd been offered the lead in George Miller's low-budget futuristic action film Mad Max.

That, of course, became a much-loved cult classic: it and its sequel would help get Gibson's film career off the ground, but he kept up his theatre acting for a time, too, appearing in a Syndey production of Death of a Salesman as late as 1982.

Mad Max 2 was a big hit in the US, and by 1984, he had relocated himself and his young family to Hollywood. He did a credible job as Fletcher Christian opposite Anthony Hopkins' Captain Blith in Roger Donaldson's The Bounty (1984), but it was Lethal Weapon (1987) that finally established him as a Hollywood star.

In Richard Donner's slick police thriller Gibson played Martin Riggs, a suicidal and reckless Los Angeles undercover cop on the trail of a major drug dealer. It was silly but entertaining, and Gibson bought a real edge to his portrayal of Riggs. And little wonder, for he has since said that at that point in his life he was pretty suicidal himself.

Though he has always enjoyed a reputation for punctuality and professionalism, Gibson was already wrestling with alcoholism, and confided to Donner during the Lethal Weapon shoot that he started each day with five pints of beer.

In 1990 he surprised many by starring in Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet. The British press was quick to sneer at the notion, but he was surprisingly convincing as the dithering Dane.

But Gibson's acting output became fitful during the early 1990s, as he was already using his status to launch a new career as a film-maker.

His first film as director was The Man Without a Face, in 1993, a gentle drama in which he played a disfigured recluse. It was respectfully reviewed and just about broke even, but Gibson followed it with a career-changing hit.

Raising the money to make Braveheart wasn't easy, and favourable tax incentives and the encouragement of then-Arts Minister Michael D Higgins brought him to Ireland to shoot the film's battle scenes.

It was broad stuff, a stirring and slightly exaggerated account of the life and times of 13th-century Scottish hero William Wallace, but Gibson handled it all brilliantly, and Braveheart won five Oscars, including Best Director, and Best Film.

The stage seemed set for a stellar Hollywood directing career, but instead Gibson spent the rest of the 1990s starring in dull but profitable action films like Ransom (1996) and Conspiracy Theory (1997). And when he did eventually return to directing in 2004, he did so in controversial circumstances.

Technically admirable, and famously grisly, The Passion of the Christ delighted Christian fundamentalists but outraged many members of the Jewish community by seeming to revive the old anti-Semitic Christ-killing tradition.

Gibson denied any intent in this regard, and was certainly scrupulous in his attempts to faithfully recreate the conditions of the actual crucifixion, even going so far as to use Aramaic as the film's main language.

Jim Caviezel played the Christ, every aspect of whose suffering was lovingly dwelt on by a film that seemed to be more about agony than redemption. But it surprised its critics by becoming a huge global hit, grossing more than $600m, and just two years later Gibson followed it with a less profitable but far more impressive directorial achievement.

Apocalypto (2006) was set in the Meso-American jungle in the early 16th Century, and spectacularly recreated the Mayan civilisation on the eve of the first Spanish invasion. It was a kind of masterpiece, but just before its release things began to go horribly wrong for its creator.

In July of 2006, after being pulled over in Los Angeles for drunk driving, he embarked on an infamous anti-Semitic tirade which made the news across the globe. It later transpired that he had just separated from his wife of 26 years, Robyn Moore, and he subsequently underwent addiction therapy.

But in 2010 he was in the news again when his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, accused him of domestic abuse, and a tape emerged of him being deeply unpleasant to her on the phone.

It wasn't pretty, and for a time Gibson seemed like an embarrassing uncle when he showed up, twitchy and ill at ease, at Hollywood awards ceremonies. But he now appears to be on an even keel again, and has unexpectedly revived his career in a manner that will confound his critics and delight his many faithful fans.

If you watch one film...

I was saddened by news of the death of Curtis Hanson a couple of weeks back. A screenwriter by trade, who later moved on to directing, his hits included 8 Mile, In Her Shoes and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and he's probably best known for the explosive 1997 crime thriller LA Confidential. But for me, his best and most satisfying film was Wonder Boys (2000), a witty and erudite drama based on a north-eastern American college campus. It's showing this Sunday night on BBC2 at 11.40pm, and really is a delight.

Michael Douglas, in one of his finest performances, plays Grady Tripp, a creative-writing professor with a bad case of writer's block. Grady's wife has just left him, he's having an affair with the chancellor's wife, and one of his students has a crush on him. His first novel was acclaimed some years back, but his second has mushroomed into an incomprehensible mess thousands of page long. His pushy editor (Robert Downey) is growing tired of his excuses, and to make matters worse, another of Grady's students (Tobey Maguire) has dashed off a debut novel that may just be a masterpiece. A sparkling cast includes Frances McDormand and Rip Torn, and Wonder Boys is by turns hilarious and touching.

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