An ex-con reunites with his estranged wayward 16-year old daughter to protect her from drug dealers who are trying to kill her.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: In the speedy new action thriller from French director Jean-François Richet, Mel Gibson wears a beard and carries a big gun. The oversized load of facial hair softens his looks and focuses our gaze on those famous blue eyes, which appear sadder that what we’re used to. With his grizzled forehead, Gibson looks like a big old friendly bear, ready for a lie-down. That sense of fatigue runs to the existential. He’s hiding shame with that beard and trying to put some distance between the past and the present. But as everyone knows a bad debt has a way of seeking out the guilty. Gibson plays a guy who can’t seem to stop saying sorry for the damage he’s wreaked and the wounds he has left behind, the things he’s left undone.
This is where the big gun comes in. Blood Father is a movie made in the tradition of American macho adventures. The kind where, say, Clint Eastwood found his own redemption through suffering by making other people pay dearly for it, especially if they are drug dealers and such. In the story, Gibson plays Link, an ex-con on parole. He lives in a trailer that seems parked in the loneliest spot in the California desert (apparently it's on the LA outskirts but not so you would notice.)
For dollars Link tattoos and to feed his soul he attends AA. His sponsor is Kirby, a funny nag played by William H. Macy, an actor who has come to specialise in characters that are like the cinematic equivalent of road kill; a cuddly loyal creature whose only mistake is straying too far into dangerous territory. Here relationships are lethal indeed, and blood ties bring trouble. Lydia (Erin Moriarty) is Link’s sixteen-year-old daughter, a total stranger to her dad, and mixed up in a drug cartel. Desperate and on the run after taking a shot at her nasty boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna), Lydia reaches out to dad who can’t wait to help. Between dodging bullets and swapping wisecracks, father and daughter bond over all the spilt blood, as they lose no time evading the bad guys who include a posse of heartless assassins, all of whom sport nasty looking tatts.
It takes some talent to get this stuff to work, mostly because the ludicrous factor is deep in the red from the get-go. That, and the fact that the chase plot, pond-scum atmosphere and hard-boiled characters have been run so deeply into the ground by Tarantino acolytes so often in the last 25 years. But Richet, perhaps taking a lead from the great Don Siegel, plays this stuff dead straight. He has a solid script by Peter Craig (based on his novel) and Andrea Berloff to work from. Cinematographer Robert Gantz gives a rare verisimilitude to the familiar locations of dead-end towns and desert; the bleached brown tones make it look like a place where hope comes to die.
Better yet, Richet bypasses that smug tone of indifference so pervasive in action movies these days and instead imbues the thing with an emotional sincerity that’s persuasive and seductive. Which is to say the father-daughter thing here is sad and precious and we fear a happy ending may be too much to hope for – and of course it helps that Gibson and Moriarty are so good.
Like Don Siegel at his best in things like Charley Varrick (1973), Richet believes in a lean elegance. Plots like this tolerate no deadwood; everything connects with purpose and continues to gather momentum right up to the final shootout. It helps that the action is fierce and convincing. Not long after the opening scene – a blackly comic gag that sends up American weirdness, where it's easier to buy firearms than it is cigarettes – we are plunged into gunplay and it’s immediately clear that this going to be a high-energy ride.
Richet, who directed the excellent Mesrine (2008) and the so-so Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) remake is a classicist when it comes to on-screen killing. Like a fine conductor, in camera moves, and cuts, and careful choreography, he lays out the threat, builds the tension and then unleashes the fury. Or to put it another way, unlike so much recent action cinema, I always knew who was shooting at whom and why and where the bullets were coming from. But there’s nothing too solemn about it, even if the plot conjures all sorts of possibilities to do with the power of parental bonding, self-sacrifice as redemption, and the conviction that the only way to prove one’s love for kin and kin is to take a bullet for the brood. I think Richet cherishes more than any ‘theme’ the purely cinematic rush he can unleash in a car chase.
It’s a movie with its own unique sense of dark fun. It reminded me of Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977), where the set-piece destruction can take on absurd proportions and movie-movie irony; trailer homes are trashed like they are subject to a military invasion. At one point Gibson repels killers with a shotgun blast while astride a Harley Davidson a la Terminator 2. Blood Father has been dismissed as trash after its Cannes preview. That’s the curse of the action movie. For fans of the genre, that kind of thing is a badge of honour, a cheeky dismissal of all that’s respectable, a defiant rejection of good taste, and a celebration of cinema as pure energy.
Watch the trailer for 'Blood Father' below: