With the release and love of Mad Max: Fury Road all over the world in recent weeks, it is hard not to think of Mel Gibson. Obviously, the character of the post-apocalyptic road warrior Mad Max Rockatansky started Gibson’s career decades ago. Since Gibson is now much older (and possibly because he currently has a much rockier career), the new film now has Mad Max being played by the great Tom Hardy.
While it cannot be said the film does not still succeed splendidly without Gibson, the man who helped create one of the screen’s most fascinating and heroic icons of all time still does certainly deserve some time of thought and reflection along with all the talk of Fury Road’s new release.
It goes without saying that Mel Gibson has fallen from grace in recent years. His public struggles that aren’t the point of this article and really don’t need to be mentioned in detail made him, to put it lightly, lose a little respect with his worldwide audience.
The once-biggest movie star in the world is currently a muddled work in progress that still has hope to redeem himself as an actor and/or a filmmaker… But will also never quite be viewed or loved in the same way again. Perhaps, however, for his work to truly continue growing and maturing, that could strangely turn out to be the best thing for him.
The purpose of this article is to not focus on Gibson’s faults as a man, but rather on his power and talent both in front of and behind the camera. Of all the major movie stars in the eighties and nineties, it is not hard to argue that Gibson was easily the best and most versatile actor of the bunch.
He was intense, volatile, vulnerable, seemed to wear his emotions on his sleeves, was actually quite funny, and could even pull off Shakespeare in a way that could threaten Kenneth Branagh at his peak. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis (at least most the times) couldn’t touch Gibson’s emotional depth, charms, or talents.
As Gibson matures into an aging actor and filmmaker, it is interesting to look back at his past and remember the young man who could light up the screen with his smile and charisma, but who could also put you on edge with the true rage and intensity behind his eyes. He has a genuine likability and integrity on the screen, but there is also something simmering beneath him that suggests wildness, danger, and unpredictability.
Every single one of these qualities are what make Gibson so special onscreen. They are genuine and unable to be faked, and they are all the reasons Mel Gibson, no matter how you may personally feel about him, will always remain one of the most talented and fascinating movie presences of all time.
15. Mad Max (1979)
Gibson’s breakout role was the best part of this film. While very well made by the mad genius George Miller, the story and film lacked any real depth, resonance, or style… At least not enough to carry it on to becoming the international success it became.
Gibson’s presence, though green and inexperienced at the time, did, however. He is genuinely sweet and charming when we see first see him alone with his family, and so natural on camera that you feel like you’re dropping in on a real family man’s morning ritual.
We then see another side to him at work as a policeman in a (barely) pre-Apocalyptic Australian outback. He and his unit try to bring down a motorcycle gang lead by a sadistic ringleader known as the Toe Cutter. Slowly but surely, the police lose, some are killed off, and Max slowly goes insane. When he finally loses his wife and infant son to the gang, he completely descends into madness, and the film erupts into revenge, rage, and a gasoline soaked climax.
Make no mistake, Mad Max is a great movie made with a lot of heart and fury, but one whose filmmakers just needed a bit more discipline and growth. It is Gibson’s characterization of Max, however, and his depiction of the character’s corruption, violent solutions, and the loss of his soul makes the film something unique.
Gibson plays the role with intensity, pain, and natural instincts. His performance isn’t perfect (his inexperience causes him to force a moment or two), but his work is unforgettable, real, and the beginning of a very interesting career.
14. Gallipoli (1981)
Gibson’s first collaboration with master filmmaker Peter Weir was a highly successful one, both as a film and as a progression towards Gibson’s onscreen abilities. Gibson gives a real, likable, and moving portrayal that ultimately helps gives the film a truly heartbreaking resonance. It is a very mature, disciplined performance that showed the world yet again that he was much more than a pretty face.
Set during World War I, Gibson plays a patriotic sprinter who convinces a rising star sprinter to join up, be patriotic, and fight the good fight with him. Bonding, travesties of war, friendship reunions, and heartfelt contemplations about personal beliefs of battle and violence ensue as the young men start to understand the horror they’ve fallen into. Gallipoli is a very moving, haunting, and beautifully well made reminder of how often youth can tragically try to prove itself of being something it doesn’t even understand.
13. The Road Warrior (1981)
If Gibson’s proven reliability and charms as a leading man weren’t enough for audiences to love him unconditionally already, a smoldering, quiet intensity was added into the mix upon the release of The Road Warrior… And it made him into something even more irresistible and fascinating.
Gibson became an adult in his second portrayal of Mad Max Rockatansky. His presence was assured and confident, his deliveries were subtle, and his grounded reactions and emotional commitment to the chaos surrounding him was part of what made the thrill ride so believable in the first place.
The Road Warrior is a far better film than Mad Max. It’s more sophisticated, tighter, and simply just all around better made. Miller’s talents as a filmmaker caught up to Gibson’s as an actor, and the result is a perfectly symbiotic relationship for a near-perfect film.
12. The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)
The Year Of Living Dangerously is a smart, sexy thriller, and was nothing less than a brilliant choice for the next step in Gibson’s then-rising career. It showed he could carry a very adult film (in this case a political thriller) and believably portray a man of intelligence and integrity.
Gibson’s second collaboration with director Peter Weir was equally instrumental in the star’s steady rise in showcasing his abilities and talents. It also proved a very insightful (perhaps lucky?) ability on Gibson’s part to intelligently choose his projects and his collaborators. Gibson didn’t appear to be cashing in on his sex symbol status or chiseled looks, he seemed to be genuinely trying to work on the best material he could find with the best people around.
With Weir at the helm and with costars like Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt to support him, Gibson obviously learned at a very young age that in order to be great, he had to surround himself with people just as good, if not better, than he was.
Gibson’s relaxed chemistry with Hunt and his romantic chemistry with Weaver proved that the actor was comfortable and believable in many different situations and with many different types of people. In short, we were beginning to find he was (or at least appeared to be ), like most great movie stars, a great “everyman”.
11. Chicken Run (2000)
Gibson, in spite of his penchant for intensity and insanity on-camera, is also very capable of being something else we can’t forget: a complete goofball. Jodie Foster once described Gibson as an attractive man who acts like he’s unattractive, and therefore developed an amazing sense of humor to get attention.
That sense of humor is on overload in Chicken Run, and it’s even more impressive because it’s just Gibson’s voice doing all the great work (the film is stop motion-animated and directed by the wonderful Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park). Chicken Run, which could easily be considered a throwaway family piece, proves to be a great reminder of how much creativity and fun Gibson can bring to his projects when he is allowed (or allows himself) to.
10. The Man Without a Face (1993)
Gibson made his directorial debut (and put aside his million-dollar asset face) in this touching and astute coming of age film about a reclusive and deformed former teacher and his friendship/mentorship to a troubled and lonely young boy (a terrific child performance and screen debut from Nick Stahl).
Made during the height of his action-star and heart-throb days, it was impressive for Gibson to push himself into being taken more seriously than the hunk of meat whose ass was getting as many close ups as his face at the time. Gibson had a lot to prove with Man Without a Face and pulled it off quite graciously. He made a touching and well-crafted film that didn’t cheat with sentimentality, and he played a character that wasn’t afraid of being unlikable or vulnerable.
Everyone loved Mel Gibson when The Man Without a Face was released, and he had the bravery to play against the qualities that had brought him the most success so far in his career. The pay off, as we would come to find, would be quite worth the efforts.
9. Ransom (1996)
Ransom was another chance for Gibson to surprise his audience, and he did it brilliantly in what is one of his most underrated and underappreciated performances. Playing the rich owner of an airline whose son is kidnapped for ransom, Gibson and his character are taken through emotional and physical hell as he begs, pleads, negotiates, and jumps through hoops to get his son back.
Under the expert direction of Ron Howard, we see a side of Gibson we hadn’t quite seen before: powerless, frightened, and horrified. Gibson doesn’t hold back on the pain of his character, and the commitment he displays in his most dramatic scenes is so heart-wrenching and real that it’s shocking he didn’t walk away with an Oscar nomination.
The film, of course, eventually wants to please its audiences and slightly cheapens itself by making Gibson the heroic badass of the film by its end. Since it was a multi-million dollar holiday-time Touchstone release, all we were able to get from Ransom was a small but very meaty glimpse of the pained and darker depths Gibson was still quite capable of (and perhaps getting better at) accessing.