BLOOD FATHER (2016) review
written by: Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff
produced by: Chris Briggs, Peter Craig, Pascal Caucheteux & Sebastien K. Lemercier
directed by: Jean-François Richet
rated: R (for strong violence, language throughout and brief drug use)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: May 21, 2016 (Cannes) and August 12, 2016 (limited) and August 26, 2016 (iTunes, Amazon and VOD)
You know, Tom Hardy was good in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, but man, watching “Blood Father” left me imagining how cool it would’ve been to see Mel Gibson back in the title role. That’s how good Gibson is in this thriller from Jean-François Richet (who directed Vincent Cassel in the two-part “Mesrine” gangster movie) as the former A-list movie star turns in a return-to-rage performance that’ll leave his die-hard fans with a satisfying smirk. I already accepted his “return” and enjoyed him in “The Beaver“, “Get the Gringo”, “Machete Kills“, heck even “The Expendables 3“, but his role in this pulpy, scuzzy yarn most resembles what he’s currently know for, something the actor acknowledges and embraces here with a tight, weathered fist.
In “Blood Father”, the guttural-voiced Gibson plays a sober ex-con dirtbag named John Link, living out of a trailer in Indio, California. He makes money where he lives as a tattoo artist for other lowlifes and resides a couple trailers down from his only friend and AA-sponsor, Kirby Curtis (William H. Macy), with the goal of staying sober and not blowing his fuse with each passing day. We meet him on the two-year anniversary of his sobriety and although John has something to celebrate there, he’s still surly about the path that led to where he’s at in life, despite encouragement from Kirby.
Besides the visibly burned-out regret he carries for his own actions, he’s also quite concerned with the missing persons flyer tacked on the wall of his trailer. That’s because the girl on the flyer is his now 17-year-old daughter Lydia, someone he’s had no involvement with due to his criminal activities and the ten years he spent in the slammer for keeping his mouth shut for an old Nam buddy. He has no idea where she is – when he gets a cold call out of the blue from Lydia (Erin Moriarty, “Captain Fantastic”), who apologetically informs her father she’s in trouble and needs help.
After picking her up, he realizes the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree as John learns his daughter is hooked on drugs and alcohol and in deep with her loser boyfriend, Jonah (Diego Luna), who “treated her different” and “really loved her”. The fast and awkward reunion with his naive in-over-her-head daughter is too sudden to register for John, who is too pissed off at the situation (and himself probably) for his heart to be torn. Turns out Lydia is on the run after a mishap involving money, drugs and guns, resulted in Jonah getting seriously injured and she had no one to turn to save for dear old and estranged dad. John tried to let his ex/her mom (Elisabeth Röhm) know what’s going on, but she hangs up on him. He figure he’s on his own and knee-deep in an uncharted teenage wasteland.
Before John can figure out the next course of action – besides sobering up Lydia – they are visited by some of Jonah’s gang-banging bros with ties to the Mexican cartel. They decorate his trailer with bullet holes and in no time, John is peeling away from a crime scene with his daughter. On the run, thinking quick and doing his best to keep his bounty-hunted daughter alive, John uses whatever under the radar resources he has left.
What we have here is the kind of “father-saving-daughter” movie Liam Neeson has made a subgenre out of. That’s what comes to mind while watching “Blood Father”, a dustier and grittier version of those movies that follows a protagonist whose “certain set of skills” is survival. Gibson’s John mastered that in the slammer and can handle whatever stakes are thrown at him on his own, but with a teenager, he’s out of his element. Thankfully, Moriarty’s Lydia isn’t an annoying ditz or seeped in sarcasm. She’s actually quite clever and worldly and knows how to handle herself amongst white supremacists in a roadhouse.
That’s the big difference between “Blood Father” and Neeson’s “Taken” movies – both fathers can handle themselves (although Gibson is more of a powder keg here, considering his past), but Lydia shouldn’t be underestimated even though she still needs John’s protection. (It’s ironic that Gibson is playing a tattoo artist, considering that’s the role he was fired from for “The Hangover 2” – and who took over that role? Liam Neeson).
The movie feels like a dog-eared paperback you stick in the back pocket of you Levis, unlike the slick comic book action of Neeson’s movies. It’s written by by Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff (“Straight Outta Compton“), from a novel by Craig (who also wrote “The Town” and the last two “Hunger Games” movies) and both of these writers deliver material that really shine when Gibson and Moriarty are riffing off each other. It’s safe to say a movie like this surprises in that way. While the trailer is great and aimed at viewers who want to see Gibson back in this cornered hard-boiled Lee Marvin-type role, you’d never expect to get some witty banter out of the screenplay – and if you recall some of his work with Richard Donner (the “Lethal Weapon” movies and “Conspiracy Theory”), you’ll remember that Gibson is great on his toes with the quips, the glances and the exasperated groans.
Another surprise is the supporting cast Richet has to work with. Macy is great as always and has great chemistry and comic timing with Gibson and Luna is usually great at playing an insecure unhinged wild card. But there are other actors that show up and fit right in, such as Thomas Mann (from last year’s “Me and Earl and Dying Girl”) who plays a hotel clerk who crushes on Lydia and winds up assisting the two fugitives. There’s also Dale Dickey and Michael Parks, who are both so good and playing either rednecks or white trash hicks to be weary of. Dickey first came to my attention with her memorable role in “Winter’s Bone” and here she plays an accomplice to Parks’ character. He plays a guy named Preacher, that old Nam buddy of John’s who’s now holed away in a desolate ranch in the desert hills, selling Nazi paraphernalia online. Knowing how Parks (“Red State” and “Tusk”) plays his characters, you just know he can’t be trusted.
There’s also a silent-but-deadly tracker John calls a Sicario, played by Raoul Trujillo (who ironically played Zero Wolf in Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and was also in last year’s “Sicario“) , an actor serves a formidably creepy role, especially during the conclusion of “Blood Father”.
All of the supporting actors and the characters written for them by Craig and Berloff fit right in to this sun-bleached world. None of the actors are showy and all of them know just how much to give to their lived-in characters. If this were a Neeson or Statham actioner, many of the supporting characters would have felt very stereotypical, often winking at the audience. In “Blood Father” they just stare you down and look right through you.
With his reputation tarnished due to his own off-screen antics, Gibson is now far removed from being People Magazine’s first-ever Sexiest Man Alive back in 1985 and I don’t care. He’s still a gifted actor and director (the new movie he helmed “Hawksaw Ridge” is just around the corner) and I’ll always be interested in what he’s doing next in front of or behind the camera. Of all the post-tirade “comeback” films “Blood Father” mostly resembles “Get the Gringo”, although that movie has more comedy. Granted, there is comedy here, but the seething rage that is boiling under the surface of Gibson’s character is always present to disrupt any levity.
Unfortunately, “Blood Father” is only getting a very limited release in theaters and then it’s going straight to VOD land. I get that. Most viewers still have a hard time with Gibson and he’s a hard sell. I’m just glad he’s not stopping. I like the run-down character he plays here and sort of think John Link is how Martin Riggs would end up if all his friends and family were killed.