He had declared himself out of the business of self-funding his own ambitious features, no doubt due in part to legal costs, a record-high divorce and run-ins with the law. He also seems unlikely to bounce back in the way that, say, Robert Downey Jr. famously did with Iron Man. Yet Mel Gibson does appear to be furrowing a modest comeback of sorts, following an extended time in toxic exile.
In his latest film, as a dastardly thuggish ex-con, Gibson joins Sylvester Stallone’s knucklehead franchise cum lifeline for ailing action stars, The Expendables. Less of a pantomime (just) than a similar turn in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, this new romp – a studio picture, no less – allows Gibson to be dark and frenzied without ‘fessing up, in the way that Wesley Snipes does rather well. (Snipes wisely cops a good-natured ribbing on the subject of tax evasion.) While he’s exhibited self-loathing and regret (convincingly with 2012’s Get the Gringo, less so with 2011’s The Beaver), Gibson’s fall from grace still lingers like a dark cloud.
When we meet, on the opening night of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic – where he is being honoured for his services to cinema, to the vocal consternation of the region’s Jewish community – he understandably approaches with caution. Evidently, no-one has informed him that an Australian critic is in town. Our interview proves to be far briefer than originally scheduled.
“It’s what I’m good at, and I don’t want to throw it away,” he offers, when I enquire if this – and his earlier showing at Cannes, alongside his fellow Expendables 3 cast members – marks a turning point in relations with the major studios. “It’s worth the effort, to be a voice in that community.”
Brushing off suggestions of ongoing controversy as “noise”, he certainly looks like he wants to be back in the game. When we speak about his next project, Blood Father (from Mesrine director Jean-Francois Richet), I note a discernible twinkle, long-thought gone for good, suddenly return to his eye.
“I just finished filming, three o’clock in the morning, in New Mexico, 15,000 kilometres away,” he says, the buzz of the business clearly still pumping in his veins. “I’m always working on that – there’s several things,” he adds quickly but pointedly, when I ask whether he will ever direct again, before he is whisked away to the green room.
It is an odd experience to see one’s childhood stars fall spectacularly from grace – and even stranger to see them attempt to rehabilitate themselves in public. Watching Gibson’s back pages on the big screen, just moments before he accepts his award, is rather sad. It feels even stranger than when Gibson went to Cannes with Jodie Foster for The Beaver in 2011, and barely opened his mouth. No matter how loud the applause this time around (and it was), things have clearly, drastically changed.
One shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the idea of a quiet rehabilitation, though. Aside from Foster and Downey Jr., both Rodriguez and Stallone have proved to be strong supporters. (Stallone telling us at Cannes that he’d originally pegged Gibson to direct The Expendables 3, although it seems the studio had other ideas). Adrian Grunberg, who directed Gibson in the criminally undervalued romp, Get the Gringo, told me that he specifically wanted Gibson the movie star back where he belonged: on the big screen. Yet cinema chains in the US baulked at the prospect, and the film all but tanked.
For now, at least, The Expendables 3 is a far safer, more nurturing space to be in. For anything more – he plays the lead in next year’s Blood Father – we’ll just have to wait and see.