In Blood Father, Mel Gibson plays John Link, who purposefully exists less as a character than as a greatest-hits packaging of tropes associated with the actor’s prior roles. Link is a recovering alcoholic with extreme anger issues, living in a trailer in the California desert a la Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. Like too many other Gibson characters to count, Link is a loner and a barely caged renegade drawn out of shadowy quasi-retirement when someone else is threatened by venal thugs, whose actions justify Link’s conjuring of an ultraviolent fury that suggests a nearly sexual release. In the case of this film, the potential victim is Lydia (Erin Moriarty), Link’s teenage daughter, who returns to him looking for protection many years after running away from her wealthy mother and falling in with Mexican drug dealers.
Director Jean-François Richet and screenwriters Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff add a few amusing wrinkles to the stalk-and-chase plot, recognizing that a vigilante story of an aging white guy battling a Mexican gang near the border might require a touch of cursory interrogation in these sensitive and imperiled times. Unexpected liberal talking points are occasionally landed, particularly when Link and Lydia hitch a ride with a truck of Mexican farm workers who may or may not be in the United States legally. Lydia speaks Spanish with the men, engaging them, wondering how Link could’ve done nine years in the pen without learning a lick of their language—which is even more curious when it’s revealed that Link has ties to a cartel employing the bad guys who’re after Lydia. In the tradition of bitter white men all over, Link says that these people are stealing his jobs. Lydia asks her father when was the last time he, or anyone he knew, actually picked oranges.
More intriguing is a scene set somewhere out in the desert among a group of outlaws who Link once rode with, led by Preacher (Michael Parks), a man who capitalizes on red-state anger as a means of income, selling Confederate and Nazi propaganda online. Link asks his mentor when he’s going to stop backing “losers,” and Parks wonderfully throws away a line about how losers make money. It’s strangely comic to encounter anarchists who speak of false rebellious idols while honoring capitalist ethos—an irony that nearly avoids hypocrisy for its open insistence on survival as the ultimate religion, until you look closer to see this “honesty” as another kind of evasive self-justification.
These interludes complement smaller details throughout the film, such as Link explaining to his daughter that Aryans work with the Mexicans without shame for the commission. Blood Father occasionally suggests a gleefully nasty drug thriller that utilizes ideologically unlikely criminal alliances as an embodiment of the collusive war on drugs, which exists to reinforce classist boundaries and to drive prices up on the goods themselves, affording national governments a large slice of the ill-gotten pie.
The film is a sturdy vehicle for Gibson, a shrewd act of capitalizing on the actor’s off-screen embarrassments and controversies, which have nurtured his reputation as an abusive, bigoted rageaholic. Link might be assembled from stock parts, but Gibson has lost none of his ferocity as a performer. (He was never merely an “action star,” but a major actor capable of enlivening, even destabilizing, films with his volcanic energy.) In the light of Gibson’s controversies, particularly the audio recordings of his screaming at a former lover, it’s impossible not to see Mad Max, Martin Riggs, or John Link as autobiographical signposts dotting his rocky emotional terrain. Occasionally, Richet will exploit Gibson’s baggage directly, such as when Link screams at Preacher in a manner than unnervingly recalls the actor’s recordings, and there are some sharply edited altercations that allow the purity of Gibson’s physical grace and essence to cut through the machinations of the plot.
Gibson also makes for an arresting, nearly sculptural object here. Aging, creased, still with impressively broad and muscled shoulders, and with wild hair and a huge ash-gray beard, he suggests a werewolf who doesn’t have the benefit of turning back into a human when the moon goes down. This look isn’t just an indulgence of bad-ass chic, it’s resonant, reflecting Link’s turmoil in a fashion for which the script, with its emphasis on three-act plotting, allows precious little room. There are pieces of a terrific thriller floating around in Blood Father, but they don’t quite cohere, as the film more often traffics in business as usual, settling into a predictable rhythm in which Link and Lydia kill or escape thugs, stop off somewhere to trade expository details, then resume their journey. The film never quite becomes the crazy, lurid spectacle that one’s primed to expect and desire.