We don’t see enough mid-budget action movies anymore. Nowadays, Western action cinema typically comes in the form of either mind-numbing PG-13 studio blockbusters or straight-to-video punch-fests. While both of those extremes can net great results, there’s a dearth of films in the middle: modest, well-made actioners with a couple movie stars and a focused raison d'être.
Enter Blood Father.
Blood Father centres around dual protagonists in the form of young rebel Lydia, on the run from a drug cartel after shooting her kingpin boyfriend, and her (blood) father John Link, living as a semi-reclusive tattoo artist and recovering from alcoholism and prison. When Lydia reconnects with Link, her safety and his parole are thrown into jeopardy as the cartel moves in to target them both and they're forced to take up arms. Adapted by Peter Craig (The Town) from his own novel, Blood Father's script doesn't do much, but it does what it does really well.
At the centre of Blood Father is Mel Gibson, returning from an acting hiatus (because I sure as shit don’t count Machete Kills or The Expendables 3) to deliver a performance fitting for an actor of his experience and stature. It’d be easy to say that the role serves as therapy for Gibson, whose run-ins with the law, the bottle, mental illness, and the wrath of the public are well-known. It follows roles in The Beaver and Edge of Darkness that similarly poked at Gibson’s demons. And indeed, Gibson’s experiences no doubt informed his performance, infused as it is with guilt and empathy for his character’s plight. But life experience alone doesn’t drive a good performance. Gibson’s alcoholic ex-con contains both light and shade, showing genuine emotion and care for a daughter dangerously close to becoming like him, while bringing all that William Wallace fury to bear in the film’s intense action sequences. He's terrific.
Playing opposite Gibson is a surprisingly meaty supporting cast that brings additional credibility to his roaring rampage of revenge. I say “roaring” literally: there’s a scene where Gibson bellows at Michael Parks’ terrifying southern fried neo-Nazi that had my audience roaring back in approval. William H. Macy, as Link’s neighbour and AA sponsor, serves as both the film’s conscience and a temporary hero. Diego Luna (soon to be seen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) is typically great as the film’s principal villain, supported by a crew that’s sadly only lightly sketched. And Jessica Jones’ Erin Moriarty, as Lydia, provides the other half of the film’s beating heart, plagued by a desperate need to escape as she reconnects with her estranged father.
Along with his personal history, Gibson brings with him a cinematic legacy spanning decades. Blood Father is acutely aware of both. It’s hard to see Gibson operating any kind of motor vehicle without thinking of Mad Max, and that’s exactly the imagery the film evokes in its short but sharp vehicular sequences. Director Jean-François Richet (of the Mesrine movies) creates shootouts and chases that - with the exception of a slightly underpowered climax - land with a nasty, relatable impact, building up the film’s villains (and heroes) as forces to be reckoned with.
Blood Father knows what it is: a lean, mean revenge thriller driven by an actor with emotion to spare. It’s a borderline exploitation movie where we’re expected to cheer when a bunch of trailer park residents take up shotguns against cartel assassins - and we do. Full of ugly personalities and dirty imagery, it’s a return to the glory days of unpretentious action thrillers that did what they set out to do, and nothing more. You won’t find world-changing ideas or groundbreaking cinema in Blood Father, but you will find 88 minutes of hard entertainment. Rarrrrr.