Every action star has that one vehicle that even their most ardent fans are surprised was a hit. Whether it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eraser or Denzel Washington and Safe House, such flicks braved a lack of strong stories, creative set pieces, and distinctive characters to rake in fortunes regardless. This is frequently excused with claims of aspiring to a more low-maintenance, no-frills brand of entertainment, though more often than not, it just means that the filmmakers hadn’t a genuine creative spark between them. That’s the long and short of it when it comes to 2016’s Blood Father, a film that, were it released during star Mel Gibson’s box office reign in the ’90s, likely would’ve cleaned up nicely and filled demand for his presence in between Lethal Weapon sequels. Unfortunately, the movie’s desire to come across as a lean thriller with no gimmickry afoot soon gives way to an inherent blandness, with its attempts to assert its cred via gratuitous cursing and jabs at modern society growing more insecure with each passing frame.
Gibson plays John Link, an ex-con who could be doing a better job of getting by. Stuck inking tattoos in a destitute trailer park, he faces temptation to betray his sobriety and slip back into his former law-breaking life at each turn. But John doesn’t have much of a choice but to resort to those old ways when his past comes screaming back into the picture. Missing for years, his estranged daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) calls him pleading for help, to which he happily complies. However, our dude’s hopes of getting his kid cleaned up and rekindling what little relationship he has left are shattered when thugs come a-gunning for the girl. It turns out that Lydia put a bullet in her gangster boyfriend (Diego Luna), and his associates are none too pleased about it. With little to lose to his name, John takes his daughter on the run, evading hails of bullets from both criminal scum and the police in order to put an end to those hunting his kin for good.
There’s not a thing wrong about Blood Father‘s wish to play things more on the simple side. As much of a thrill as the cinematic universes and complex story threads so often featured in today’s multiplex fare can bring, not all films were meant to share such an approach. We need those flicks that rely only on grit, muscle, and pure vigor to provide the odd breather, a role which Blood Father is glad to assume. The film’s visuals certainly fulfill their burliness quota, with director Jean-Francois Richet (of 2005’s surprisingly solid remake of Assault on Precinct 13) showcasing filthy roadside motels, skeezy warehouses, and an all-around sweaty, sun-drenched color palette. However, the story itself never matches the ferocity that, as we come to learn, it desperately wants to achieve. The premise isn’t terribly original to begin with (bickering dad and kid flee stock gangsters), and what efforts are made to instill it with some singular flavor or angle usually turn out frustratingly underdeveloped. The gradual bonding between John and Lydia is awkwardly handled and carries no weight, building towards a foregone finish and accruing little pathos along the way. Eventually, Blood Father‘s commitment to shirking any enhancements that might help it stand out in today’s genre crowd manifests in random jabs at technology and “soft” millennial folk. But no matter how defiantly the movie likes to pride itself on being inherently old-school, its dearth of nearly all uniquely defining features makes it clear that it’s oblivious to what made those awesome action flicks of yore so engaging in the first place.
What attitude and edge Blood Father can claim begins and ends with scores of screaming, swearing, and sneering at the camera. To be fair, though, if your story is centered around a loud and almost totally unhinged protagonist, you could do a lot worse than having Gibson in your corner. He need not stretch far to play one scary-looking hombre, with his natural intensity proving a boon as he weathers the screenplay’s hackneyed dialogue and the checklist of clichéd incidents that is his character’s arc. Moriarty is okay, yet being snatched up and whining every so often gradually become her part’s sole functions. In that respect, Lydia does live up to other characters’ accusations of being a spoiled princess without a clue of what rock-bottom reality is, but it comes at the cost of a sense of personal growth on her behalf. The lion’s share of our supporting cast comprises an indiscernible rabble of scowling, tattooed goons for Gibson to mow down, though a few key figures turn in work that’s as close to impressionable as this movie ever gets. In a part that amounts to little, Michael Parks is a glowering treat to watch, William H. Macy’s presence as John’s trailer park confidante is welcome, and as Lydia’s deranged beau, Luna possesses a keen sense of when to pitch a maniacal fit and when to reign in the evil. Nobody turns in an awful performance, per se, but just as the script is content to coast on enough narrative bullet points to get by, thus are most of the performers perfectly willing to glower at the camera for a few brief moments before vanishing into the ether.
Blood Father is ripe with so much talent that the label of “poseur” would be a smidge unfair. But there’s no mistaking the whiffs of laziness one picks up through its running time, the inventive action sequences and crackling dialogue that could have been but were discarded, in favor of boring gunfights and gripes about why kids these days should get a job already. There’s a difference between being vintage and being behind the times, and while it can protest to the contrary all it wants, Blood Father is the latter.