Surely Mel requires no introduction, but let’s pitch him as a gifted actor who has also proven to be a worthy director. Perhaps he is better known for some lousy off-screen behavior these days, but we’re not going there. In truth, we’re avoiding more than Meltdowns (I feel bad about that one, but it wouldn’t be denied) as we’re totally zeroed in on Gibson’s work as an actor.
Surely Mel requires no introduction, but let’s pitch him as a gifted actor who has also proven to be a worthy director. Perhaps he is better known for some lousy off-screen behavior these days, but we’re not going there. In truth, we’re avoiding more than Meltdowns (I feel bad about that one, but it wouldn’t be denied) as we’re totally zeroed in on Gibson’s work as an actor. Sorry, Apocalypto and Passion of the Christ, but Gibson’s impressive outings as a director won’t appear on this list. He was reportedly offered the director’s chair for the latest Expendables romp, but he declined that opportunity and he’ll simply be on hand to kick ass as the bad guy.
I’ll be reviewing The Expendables 3 later this week for RVA, and I can’t wait to see Mel and Sly go toe to toe–in fact, I’m so stoked about The Expendables 3 that I offered up a Top 5 Schwarzenegger Movies piece last week in honor of his participation in the movie. Like that list, the #1 spot on this Top 5 was an easy call for me. After that, things got a bit murky. Honestly, I think people will probably agree with most of my choices, but the order promises to be cause for conversation.
#5) The Patriot (2000)
It’s a Roland Emmerich film, so it’s going to be melodramatic and implausible at times, but he can deliver action and intrigue to go along with inviting characters. Mel offers up a vibrant performance that is matched by the work of a youthful Heath Ledger and a dastardly Jason Isaacs. Both are impressive, though Isaacs, who has always been a personal favorite of mine, frequently threatens to steal the show as one hell of a villain. Of course, in the end Mel rules the screen, largely due to his trademark blend of toughness and fire. This sentimental take on the American Revolution is highly entertaining, but viewers shouldn’t be surprised to find that it doesn’t feel overly authentic and brings several clichés to the table.
The Patriot is certainly patriotic; the characters themselves are seldom more than well-realized caricatures, and the sides of the conflict are roughly hashed out as noble and insidious with the same proportions that served cartoons like G.I. Joe and Transformers well. This picture is designed to summon certain feels from the audience, accuracy be damned. For the most part, accuracy isn’t important. It’s about hitting certain notes and letting Mel and his cohorts deliver the goods. That they do, landing at #5 on my list in a somewhat sappy adventure that is 100% red, white, and blue. It is also a riveting spectacle ripe with emotion and grandeur, and it is undoubtedly worthy of such consideration.
#4) We Were Soldiers (2002)
Vastly underrated, this is a fine war film highlighted by emotional turmoil and graphic battle scenes that are marked by terror and dismay as well as courage and determination. Mel is positively outstanding as Hal Moore, a gifted leader who is as wholesome and likable a badass as the cinema is apt to produce. Moore drips with kindness and is believable as a loving husband and father who treasures his family above all else. Yet he also loves his country, and he believes that he must serve and protect his family by fighting his beloved nation’s battles. This he does extremely well. This gripping account of the onset of the Viet Nam conflict is far more detailed and relevant than The Patriot, but it also sacrifices accuracy for movie magic at times.
Once again, Mel is aided by a gifted cast, with Sam Elliot perfectly filling the shoes of Moore’s second-in-command, while Ryan Hurst, Barry Pepper, and Chris Klein (no, seriously, Chris Klein) are all equally potent. Greg Kinnear is a particular favorite of mine in this one, playing a gutsy helicopter pilot nicknamed “Snakeshit,” and Clark Gregg also manages to stand out in a smaller part. Madeleine Stowe and Kerri Russell make the women waiting at home particularly memorable, and the acting throughout is a definite strength of the picture. The real star of the show, however, is the unflinching look at combat that this one serves up. The battle scenes are intense, believable, and tough to watch at times, with some of the gore on display rivaling the gruesome visuals of a depraved horror movie. When you take all of this under consideration, We Were Soldiers emerges as one of Mel’s most stirring pictures, a grueling depiction of war with an abundance of heart.
#3) Lethal Weapon (1987)
Honestly, I prefer Lethal Weapon 4 from 1998, but I’m probably in the minority there and much of my love for that entry stems from Jet Li’s presence as the heavy. This one has a nice heavy of its own, an effectively low-key Gary Busey playing an unhinged killer who can’t feel pain. Of course, the emphasis is on our mismatched cops, with Mel stealing the show as wild man Martin Riggs while Danny Glover does a swell job as his seasoned veteran (and by-the-numbers) partner, Roger Murtaugh. Buddy-cop movies were en vogue at this point, but we had never seen anyone quite like Martin Riggs on screen before. Well, we had, but only as one of the bad guys. Riggs is a suicidal lunatic whose death wish is only insignificant when compared to his bravura.
Gibson is tremendous throughout in a role he was born to play. The part is surprisingly fun given the character’s tragic backstory and his considerable self-loathing. Perhaps that’s because he’s totally unpredictable; as the feature unfolds, we’re never certain how Riggs is going to react to any given situation, but it’s seldom what we expect from a dude from a badge and it’s always entertaining. Is this Richard Donner’s best feature? I’ll go with either The Omen (1976) or his Superman (1980) and I’m sure there are a great many who prefer 1985’s The Goonies [*raises hand*-ed], but I’m also convinced that many action diehards would rank this one as his best. Lethal Weapon is a great film that would probably sit atop the list when it comes to buddy-cop flicks if not for Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs., the finest offering from that particular sub-genre. [The script, the debut by talented screenwriter Shane Black, deserves some credit here as well.-ed] Some may even see the part of Martin Riggs as Gibson’s best role, but there are two movies I can’t rank beneath this late 80s gem.
#2) Braveheart (1995)
I know that for many, this is probably Gibson’s finest film as an actor, particularly those who don’t dig sci-fi, or younger fans of his work who may not be as familiar with Max Rockatansky. Braveheart is a stellar motion picture, there’s no doubting that, and it stands as yet another movie packed with drama and emotion as well as action and excitement. Yet again, this is a historical piece, and once again it is accurate at times while straying from authenticity in favor of cinematic effect at other junctures. Unlike The Patriot and We Were Soldiers, however, this one rests squarely upon Mel’s able shoulders. Yes, there are other talented performers in the mix playing intriguing characters (David O’Hara as Stephen being my personal favorite, though I’m always fond of Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson) but this is William Wallace’s story through and through. As such, it is moving, invigorating, and ultimately a bittersweet combination of tragic and triumphant.
Mel positively smolders, perfectly displaying his character’s seething rage and his equally powerful charisma. In Gibson’s hands, Wallace becomes a violent instrument of vengeance who also excels at being a leader of men. His cause here is just, his enemies are vile, and Mel grounds a fine picture with a wonderful performance that suits him well. His trademark gusto and his personal brand of toughness mesh well with the part, as do his charm and wit. Braveheart is a grand achievement, and while I think it is deserving of only second place on this Top 5, I am certain that those who would prefer to see it at #1 have a strong case.
#1) The Road Warrior (1981)
But then there’s The Road Warrior. What George Miller achieved here is nothing short of marvelous; yet it would be something of a sour affair if not for the power of Mel Gibson. Everyone loves a good anti-hero, but often only because an anti-hero on the big screen is far more hero than anti. Let’s be honest: Max makes prickly old Snake Plissken seem warm and fuzzy by comparison. Yes, the rousing finish finds him working with the good guys, but like every other action Max takes in this picture, his efforts in the closing reel are totally self-serving. The world Miller breathes life into in The Road Warrior (his peerless follow-up to 1979’s equally bitter Mad Max) is a place where it seems that it just wouldn’t make sense for anyone to care much for anyone else. Fuel is more precious than life and violence is rampant. Fittingly, Max is a character who was once a good man, yet as the picture opens he has adapted to this new landscape and seeks nothing more than survival. He is cold, he is adept, and though he has the kind of skills that would allow him to be a hero to others, he doesn’t really give a shit. All he cares about is staying alive. It’s as though he has figured this new age out and is content to pick the world’s ravaged carcass, neither understanding those who can’t embrace this volatile lifestyle or even pausing to concern himself with them.
Of course, Max is forced into a conflict pitting a ragtag band of survivors against a marauding army, and circumstance will force him into the role of hero. He fights these developments tooth and nail, but in the end he is forced to put it all on the line for these survivors, who have so much more to live for but lack Max’s skill or daring. Then it’s time for Max to say, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll drive that tanker” and put his foot on the gas. Miller closes out The Road Warrior with perhaps the biggest and baddest finale of them all, a vicious chase sequence that is the product of an era that came before CGI, a time when crazed stuntman filled in for digital effects. Those are real dudes in real vehicles, crashing into one another when they aren’t leaping from one car to another or pinwheeling through the desert in search of a decent spot to land. It’s a vivid conclusion for a stark and powerful film that hasn’t lost any of its considerable bite over the years. No one else could have played Max the way Mel did, and I strongly believe that a lesser actor working without Gibson’s flair would have sunk this picture, turning a grim thrill ride into an utterly dour day at the theater. As it stands, I do believe that The Road Warrior is not only host to Gibson’s finest performance, but also the best motion picture that he has ever been associated with.
How do I feel about Fury Road, the upcoming George Miller film featuring Tom Hardy as Max while Charlize Theron appears to play the lead? Well, I don’t like the idea of anyone but Mel playing Max and I think it will be damn near impossible to top The Road Warrior. My praise of that film as seen here should make that fairly obvious. Having said that, the trailer looks mesmerizing… but then again, honest trailers are about as rare as honest politicians. I do like Miller and Hardy, and I love Charlize, so I’m both skeptical and curious. I guess I’m squarely on the fence.
Also, special praise should be afforded to Randall Wallace, the director who shot both We Were Soldiers and Braveheart. His work with Gibson is nothing short of exceptional, and both of those entries on this list benefitted greatly from his involvement.
This wasn’t easy; obviously I have favored Mel’s work in the action realm here, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed him in dramas or comedies. He is a gifted actor and he certainly isn’t limited to shooting guns or driving tankers, though I do feel that his skillset is uniquely suited for full-throttle excitement. As noted, I could see Lethal Weapon 4 on this list, and maybe Mad Max should have made the cut as well. Payback, Ransom, and even films like the silly comedy What Women Want or Mel’s take on Hamlet warranted consideration for this Top 5. Honestly, I like Bird on a Wire and Tequila Sunrise, as well as Air America and Get the Gringo. Mel has been prolific, and there aren’t many movies he has starred in (or directed, but that’s another story) that I haven’t enjoyed. With that in mind, I welcome your commentary and I would love to see your Top 5 Mel Gibson Movies.
Oh, and don’t forget: later this week, Barney Ross and his Expendables team will square off against Gibson in The Expendables 3. Look for my review of that action extravaganza here on Friday.