If alternate universes existed I’d like to think that in one of them Mel Gibson is still a well-liked and bankable star delivering darkly comic action gems like Payback or legitimately great thrillers like Ransom to appreciative theatrical audiences. Barring that fantasy world though, if the only Gibson we have onscreen is the one occasionally showing up in fun, off the radar action flicks like Get the Gringo and his latest, Blood Father, then I’ll happily accept that too.
John Link (Gibson) is an alcoholic ex-con who’s two years and counting into both freedom and sobriety. He lives on the outskirts of nowhere in a small desert community that sees him attending AA meetings and working as a tattoo artist. His daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) ran away from Link’s ex-wife years ago, but a frantic call from her sees father and daughter reunited for a brief spell before the trouble she’s involved in comes knocking on his trailer door.
There’s more to the initial setup, but it’s not all that necessary for me to write and for you to read – the film plays out from here pretty much exactly as you’d expect plot-wise. The script by Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff (from Craig’s novel) lacks any real surprises and instead focuses its effort on hitting generic story beats with a terrific lead character at its center. Director Jean-Francois Richet (Mesrine, Assault on Precinct 13 reboot) takes these basic thrills though and turns them into a series of hard-hitting, smartly-crafted, practical action sequences, and cinematographer Robert Gantz captures it all it against the desert’s stark yellows and reds. Shootouts, a motorcycle chase, and other physical antics keep the energy and entertainment up, but the key to the film’s success rests heavily on Gibson’s tanned and tattooed shoulders.
Thankfully for those of us who’ve missed him onscreen he’s as cantankerous, captivating, and capable as he ever was. An introductory scene sees him regretting past transgressions and broken relationships at his AA meeting, and it’s easy to see shades of autobiography in his repentance. Gibson carries the emotion through Link’s discovery that his daughter’s safe – immediately followed by the realization that she’s in deadly danger – and it serves to fuel the main character’s motivation beyond simple plot mechanics. We know this father is going to fight to protect his daughter, but Gibson gives what would otherwise be a generic character heart and gravitas.
Link has been living peacefully on parole, and Lydia’s troubles – from drugs to guns – all threaten to see him tossed back into jail. There’s no doubt that he’ll step up to help, but he does so with a humorous and begrudging vocabulary even as shots are being fired around him. He’s more than capable of serious drama (The River) and broad comedy (Maverick), but Gibson’s patented blend of manic, insane energy is where he’s most comfortable and viewers are most rewarded. The film is fine, but he makes it a joy.
The rest of the cast is limited – a brief drive into Los Angeles aside this is a desert-set adventure – but most give solid turns in small roles. Diego Luna plays Lydia’s angry ex while William H. Macy is tasked as Link’s friend and sponsor. The main draw on the supporting side though is Michael Park as Link’s old friend turned Nazi memorabilia re-seller. His delivery and mannerisms are every bit as memorable as you’d expect.
Less successful, and the film’s biggest weakness, is Moriarty. Her character is no help as she’s tasked with dialogue that constantly feels anything but natural, but Moriarty’s performance strands her as the film’s single element that clearly doesn’t belong here. She’s never convincing as a young woman who’s been a part of such a dangerous lifestyle, and her reactions never match what’s going on around her. Moriarty’s like a toddler who’s wandered into a high school cafeteria – she’s cute but woefully out of place and unprepared for her surroundings.
Blood Father survives the speed bump that is Moriarty thanks to its look, feel, and the propulsive force that is Mel Gibson. Low-key action junkies will be satisfied with this 88-minute romp, but Gibson’s fans will be showered with much more.