Look, I get it. You don’t like Mel Gibson, and you haven’t since his drunken, coke-fueled, racist rants against female cops, his wife, and others made the news starting just over a decade ago. My personal line is drawn a bit further on ‐- so yeah, Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski are still on my own shit list ‐- but it’s your prerogative to feel how you want, and I would never pretend to say otherwise.
The cost to Gibson’s career was swift, severe, and understandable as he immediately lost any semblance of bankability which quickly translated into a dearth of job opportunities. He still starred in a handful of films including Edge of Darkness, The Beaver, and the legitimately fun Get the Gringo, but audiences didn’t care. He made cameos in bigger movies -‐ and managed to be the best part of both Machete Kills and The Expendables 3 ‐- but still, public reaction was tepid at best.
You’d think a “Thank you” in the credits for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation would have helped, but that didn’t quite work out…
Judging by the reactions to recent announcements and rumors ‐- He’s going to play a corrupt cop in Dragged Across Concrete! He might direct Suicide Squad 2! ‐- many online appear no closer to forgiveness, but Hollywood may finally be turning a page in his favor. His latest directorial effort, the hokey but thrilling Hacksaw Ridge, is nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and the idea that he’d even be considered for a DC blockbuster is equally huge. It’s too soon to call it a career recovery, but for fans of his work both onscreen and off it’s good news all the same.
As is probably clear by now, I’m in that fan camp as his filmography is rich in entertaining movies, so I wanted to inject some positivity into the mostly negative chatter online. He’s directed some solid films over the years, and I look forward to more, but here are the eleven best movies featuring Gibson in a lead role. Does this make me an asshole by association? I don’t know, and I don’t care. These movies are great, and while racist attitudes shrivel up and die these films and the joy they bring will last forever.
11. Blood Father (2016)
Okay, fine, I made this a “top eleven” (instead of top ten) strictly so I could include his most recent film as an actor alongside his more well-known titles. But Blood Father is really good! There’s a gritty, old-school feel to the action and look of it, and Gibson excels as a man who’s still paying the price for long-ago sins. On the nose? Perhaps, but it’s also damn entertaining.
10. Signs (2002)
This M. Night Shyamalan feature has some issues well worth criticizing ‐- his own disastrous cameo for starters ‐- but it remains his second highest-grossing film and an effective and entertaining adventure that succeeds in part on the strength of Gibson’s performance. Narrowing the focus of an alien invasion onto a single family is brilliant, and the film delivers scares, thrills, and a rousing (albeit slightly goofy) finale.
9. The Patriot (2000)
I won’t pretend Roland Emmerich’s historical action film is all that historically accurate, but does it really need to be? It’s still one of his most enjoyable and entertaining movies, and it hits some far darker notes than his family-friendly blockbusters typically aim for. Jason Isaacs is a tremendous villain, the action is a bloody blast, and Gibson will always be at his best as a character forced into violence for good reason.
8. Chicken Run (2000)
No, this isn’t a cheat because it’s animated. Gibson voices a lead role here, as a cock no less, and he does a great job of it. More importantly, Nick Park & Peter Lord’s film is a terrifically fun romp that effortlessly transplants farm fowl into a POW-prison escape movie. Jokes and visual gags abound, but the story never feels stilted by its lead characters being animals. Small details add to the period setting, and the action/suspense are every bit as satisfying as a live-action escape film would be.
7. Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Robert Towne’s moody crime drama doesn’t get talked about a lot, and I can only attribute that to audiences being overwhelmed by the triple threat of Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kurt Russell — all in their prime. It’s a sexy, beautifully-shot thriller that moves at its own sultry pace throughout. It’s low-key but definitely worth a watch (or a re-watch as the case may be).
6. Maverick (1994)
The past couple of years have seen an abundance of big-screen reboots of television favorites, but few reach the heights of this Richard Donner feature. Gibson is a natural fit for the role originated by James Garner (who co-stars here), and it remains one of the few films where Jodie Foster plays a character who gets to have a lot of fun. The action is exciting, the laughs are frequent, and it really should have been the start of a film franchise.
5. Ransom (1996)
Ron Howard’s very much a journeyman director who moves between genres and more often than not makes “good” movies. Still, he’s delivered some great ones over the years too with one of the last being this top-notch action thriller about a man out for blood in the search of his kidnapped child. Terrific suspense, stellar set-pieces, and a fantastic supporting cast (Rene Russo, Gary Sinise, Liev Schreiber, and others) make for a fast-moving thriller that still delivers the goods.
4. The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
One of Gibson’s more acclaimed films, Peter Weir’s Academy Award-winner is a smart and serious look at political unrest turned deadly, and its cachet as an “important” film never gets in the way of the thrills, suspense, or beauty. Linda Hunt’s portrayal of a male photographer justifiably earned the most buzz, but Gibson does strong work as a journalist forced to check his ego in exchange for doing his job right.
3. Payback (1999)
I love the hell out this movie ‐- or movies seeing as there are two fairly distinct versions available ‐- and I don’t trust anyone who dislikes it. Brian Helgeland’s film is violent, foul-mouthed, funny, and smart, and it’s as close as Gibson got to a Shane Black movie outside of Lethal Weapon. That’s a shame as he excels in these kind of roles. The supporting cast is equally brilliant starting with the always fantastic Gregg Henry and continuing on through Maria Bello, Lucy Liu, John Glover, William Devane, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, David Paymer, and more.
2. Lethal Weapon (1987) / Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Okay fine, *this* is a cheat as I’m including two films in this one slot. Shane Black helped jump-start the buddy cop genre with his script for the first film, and Gibson was born to play the slightly deranged but competent detective who finds grounding in a more laid-back partner. The sequel is one of the rare follow-ups that manages to be as good as the original while exceeding it in some ways, and together they make for a perfect one-two punch of action/comedy. (Part three is a mediocrity by comparison, and the less said about part four the better.)
1. The Road Warrior (1981)
George Miller revisited the apocalypse with the recent Fury Road and without Gibson, but that film’s greatness takes nothing away from this CG-free masterpiece. The vehicular action is still breathtaking in its beauty and danger, and despite the misery and mayhem it remains a tale of hope against an oppressive reality. Max never made it back from his isolation in the wasteland, but here’s hoping Gibson survives his stint as a loner and returns a better man.