Movies provide a comforting cardigan of wish-fulfilment, and not just for audiences: at an age when most people would be getting an early night with a cup of tea and a crossword puzzle, Blood Father gives 60-year-old Mel Gibson the chance to fire guns, punch bad guys and ride around on a Harley without a crash helmet. If that sounds ageist, bear in mind that I’m about two decades younger than Mel and currently sitting at my desk, looking forward to an early night with a cup of tea and a crossword puzzle.
Still, Mel Gibson clearly isn’t ageing like a typical guy in his 60s. In Blood Father, his character wears a salt-and-pepper beard like an Old Testament prophet and grumbles bitterly about immigrants stealing jobs, but he also has the toned biceps of a Russian shot putter and those same glinting blue eyes that made him a superstar in the era of Lethal Weapon and Mad Max 2. Come to think of it, Blood Father provides Gibson with more than a few opportunities to reprise some familiar moments from his greatest hits: he gets to wield a shotgun just like Max, and he even lives in a trash-ridden trailer like his signature hero, Martin “Lethal Weapon” Riggs.
Here, Gibson plays John Link, an ex-convict and recovering alcoholic who lives in a trailer park next door to his only friend, Kirby (an under-used William H Macy). John divides his time between going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and making money by etching tattoos on the locals, until one day his estranged daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) shows up, having vanished about a decade earlier. It turns out that Lydia’s fallen in with a bad crowd in the intervening years, and having accidentally shot her gangster boyfriend Jonah (Gabriel Luna), now has a group of tattooed, Latino gangsters hot on her heels.
This might all sound like another entry in the growing post-Taken sub-genre of action thrillers for Hollywood actors of a certain vintage, but Blood Father’s really more a road-trip drama with a side sprinkling of violence and gunplay. Adapted from the novel by Peter Craig, Blood Father’s economically – if rather anonymously – directed by Jean-Francois Richet, who previously brought us the workmanlike remake of Assault On Precinct 13 and the superb Mesrine movies starring Vincent Cassell. The supporting cast is good value, particularly Michael Parks as a horrendous old man who sells Nazi memorabilia from a warehouse in the middle of the desert. But this is clearly a Gibson vehicle first and foremost, and he’s as charismatic as he always was as a gruff, seen-it-all hero.
The plot and dialogue may work a little too hard to make Gibson’s character sympathetic – one early speech, about his past behaviour pushing friends and family away feels particularly laboured – but his inate ability to convey both compassion and a barely-concealed violent streak fit the movie perfectly. There’s one particular moment where John’s temper boils over, his face flushing, and it’s easy to imagine that, yes, this guy really was a Vietnam soldier, Hell’s Angel and ruffled jailbird.
The road trip drama element of Blood Father isn’t revolutionary stuff, but it’s entertaining and sparky enough that it feels almost disappointing when Richet takes the story into more conventional action-thriller territory. In fact, genre fans hoping for another Taken may be dismayed that the movie deals in short, sharp bursts of violence rather than protracted set-pieces. In this regard, Blood Father’s closer in tone to Leon, with its awkward cross-generational relationship, than Liam Neeson’s head-busting opus. Admittedly, those brief jabs of action are effectively staged for the most part, but derailed by some one-note villains and plot developments that are all too easy to see coming.
Nevertheless, the quality of the acting and drama make Blood Father worth a cautious recommendation. The movie’s an odd yet diverting throwback, not only to the movies in the star’s early career but also to a bygone era of dusty road movies where the sky’s blue, the desert’s gold and the tarmac stretches off into infinity. There’s a scene where John tells his daughter that, what with all the driving and punching and shooting, he hasn’t had this much fun in years; something glimmers in the actor’s eye, and there’s the sense that the same goes for Gibson, too.
Blood Father is out in UK cinemas now.