I have followed the bloody trail of the Expendables franchise and its increasingly stupid character names from the beginning, perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation. But what I’ve found in these 80’s throwbacks is a strange sense of the reckless fun of those films: First Blood, Die Hard, Payback, and anything starring the increasingly atrophying cast of the Expendables. There is a scene in Expendables 3 where Stallone, with no preface, detonates a perfectly good helicopter simply because he was done using it. This may be the least ridiculous moment in a film where the main emotional tension is whether or not a character named Hail Cesar (Terry Crews) will live or die.
Sadly, the third entry into the franchise is also the weakest and most underperforming, settling for a PG-13 rating to appease younger audiences and, in the process, losing the buckets of gore that make Stallone’s latest films watchable. What makes this most disheartening is the incredible performance Mel Gibson turns in. I’m not saying it’s Oscar-worthy stuff, but when he falls to his knees after a fight scene where he holds his own against human bag of muscles, Sylvester Stallone, and shouts, “What about the Hague?” before Stallone finishes him off with his revolver, we get a sense of the old Mel, the Lethal Weapon jokester who can’t help but be a jackass, regardless of the seriousness of his predicament.
These days, when we talk about Mel Gibson, two things come to mind: The violence of Passion of the Christ, and his apparent dislike of certain cultures based on a drunken tirade. That outburst, as awful as it was to both the Jewish culture and women, has been talked to death. While I see the importance of it as a reminder that celebrities can’t do whatever they want, what that incident fails to take in is his remarkable skill as an actor and his capacity for personal growth. True, I don’t know anything about his personal changes, but I do know his recent filmography, so we’ll discuss that. Thankfully, with the return of Mad Max, we’ve been reminded of his early work, perhaps we even look fondly on it. But while Gibson spent the years after his public shaming attempting to rebuild his career with “serious” films like The Beaver and Edge of Darkness, where he continues to shine is in his quiet return to form in gritty not-too-serious action films like Get the Gringo and Expendables. Gringo was originally meant for wide release, but Gibson’s name retains a blemish that took that option away. What he got instead was a small release and a second life on Netflix of a tight, exciting, often funny film where he returns to the sort of amorality of his 90’s crime film characters.
What Gibson seems to have regained is the feeling of weightlessness he lost with heavy prestige films like We Were Soldiers and The Patriot. In Gringo, Gibson’s character (in the cast list as simply “Driver”) wanders around a Mexican prison, doling out violence and snark in equal measure, looking the part of the grizzled old action hero. At one point, he exits an office full of people and throws a grenade so nonchalantly over his shoulder that he seems to be discarding a tissue rather than extinguishing lives. The parallels to earlier work like Payback serve only to build the film’s enjoyability, casting Gibson as the same character twenty years on, harder, meaner, but a little more human.
Is Gibson’s racist and misogynistic outburst forgivable? We’ve forgiven our favorite actors of much worse. But the question can’t be answered simply, certainly not in the length of this article. More importantly, here is a man who, at the midpoint of what will hopefully be a much longer career, is still producing the work we loved him for before we turned away from him. We can still enjoy the films he acts in as much as he seems to enjoy making them.
Upcoming, Gibson stars in Blood Father, where he plays John Link, an ex-con hosting a celebration at a musical theatre society, whose daughter gets into trouble with drug dealers. If that doesn’t sound like the sort of action film you need to see, there’s no help for you. Then he’ll be directing Hacksaw Ridge, a war film about the first conscientious observer to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. If his previous directorial work is any indication, again, this would be a huge mistake to miss.
Regardless of how we feel about Gibson, what marks his character most for me is his acceptance of a new role in films, that of a secondary character or as a main character in quiet little films where he still acts the hell out of every scene. In Machete Kills (a film where Charlie Sheen as Carlos Estevez plays the President of the United States, if that’s any indication of how many times you need to watch it), Gibson’s villain constantly refers to “The Incident,” accompanied by spacey sound effects and a far off look. Watching the film for the first time, I saw this as a hilarious aside for Gibson’s Voz, played perfectly. But looking back on it, I like to think this was Gibson referencing himself, referring to the incident that led to his declining star power. Voz deals with his incident by attempting to destroy Earth and fly off into space with his chosen few. Gibson deals with his as Martin Riggs did in Lethal Weapon: he shrugs at his own mistakes, dusts himself off, and tries to do better next time.