A few months back, I was at a fancy new restaurant — think varnished wood, exposed beams, conspicuously abstract-sounding name — where, as we were about to order, the friend I was eating with made an offhand remark in front of the waiter about his girlfriend always stealing his french fries. “Oh, you guys want french fries?” the waiter asked.
French fries, we thought? At this place? It wasn’t on the menu, and it had never occurred to us. At the same time, who doesn’t like french fries? “Sure,” we said.
“You want those animal style?” the waiter asked. To which we had the same reaction, and offered the same affirmative response.
And so it was we ended up eating animal-style french fries between orders of wood ear mushroom tapas and glazed sweet breads at Burlap and Sage or whatever it was called. The fries were delicious, by the way. How could they not be? An award-winning chef cooking a universally-beloved food is almost never going to be a bad thing.
Which is to say that Blood Father is the movie equivalent of high-end animal fries. I had no idea this was even something I wanted.
Okay, so imagine the animal fries were a Taken movie. And when I say that, I mean Taken the genre, not Taken the movie. Taken is also a Taken movie, but there are lots of Taken movies. There are three that are actually called Taken, three to five more that star Liam Neeson (think Non-Stop, Run All Night, A Walk Among the Tombstones, etc.), and a handful of others that star Neeson-aged actors (see Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, etc.) in Liam Neesons-esque roles.
The basic format is, there’s a middle-aged guy who just wants to live a quiet life, but then someone messes with his family (usually his daughter) and he gets dragged back into whatever bad-guy life he used to lead, as an assassin, a super spy, or whatever. It’s a classic action movie format, but the Taken twist was to cast a lead well into his fifties or sixties, and not one known solely for action (like Charles Bronson, say). Instead they cast a legit near-A-lister with real acting chops (like Liam Neeson, and various Liams Neesons).
Truth be told, I never liked Taken all that much. (THIS IS A GUILTY ADMISSION, PLEASE STOP PELTING ME WITH SMALL ROCKS.) But Blood Father is like all of the melted cheese and special sauce of Taken with none of the grease and exhaust fumes. (Yes, this metaphor is all used up. I also had to think really hard to find something bad about animal fries.)
For a start, Blood Father is perfectly cast, from Mel on down. Gibson plays John Link, proprietor of Missing Link Tattoo, which he runs out of a trailer in Indio, the barren, sweaty asshole of Southern California. Even aside from his personal life, Gibson’s had a bit of a rocky transition from cute, young sex symbol to elder statesmen, but it seems that he’s finally embraced his grizzled hardass, and it suits him, perfectly. It’s not necessarily a lack of vanity so much as properly-directed vanity. His scraggly beard is half grey and he looks more gnarled and weather-beaten than Icelandic driftwood, but there’s a certain kind of beauty that comes from wearing your age like a badge of honor — especially when you’ve got Mel Gibson’s piercing blue eyes and rough/smooth cat’s tongue of a voice. Basically, I’m saying I want to have sex with Mel Gibson. I kid, but with Gibson’s Popeye forearms and Yak scrotum face he’s the very embodiment of “old man strength,” the kind of prickly guy you’d just as soon avoid, but who you’d want on your side in a jam, perfect for a movie like this.
Erin Moriarty as John Link’s daughter, Lydia (the Missing Link’s missing Lydia, Lydia Link…) is an even bigger improvement. Sure, she’s a less annoying actress than Taken‘s Maggie Grace (who wouldn’t be?) but it’s also the story choices that elevate Blood Father above Taken. Where Grace’s character was a bit of a rich, whiny brat you kind of wanted to get kidnapped, Lydia Link is a runaway, a drug addict who took up with a drug dealer, who doesn’t spend much of her time crying into the giant teddy bear her dad won her at the fair. When she reluctantly calls her estranged dad to bail her out, she says, matter-of-factly, “It’s your f*cked-up daughter.”
She’s believable and not hysterical, a compelling combo. Blood Father also seems to understand that it’s more interesting if Mel Gibson’s character is just a guy with faults who loves his daughter, and not some parody of a super dad, feeding deer and laughing while they eat ice cream. (No offense to Commando, which I love.)
I can see why people loved Taken as an action movie (Liam Neeson shooting that lady in the arm was a particular highlight), but the sticking point for me was that it was also competence porn. Liam Neeson had “a particular set of skills,” and was just sooo good at being a super secret agent assassin or whatever that no bad guys ever stood a chance. I never felt he was in real peril for even the briefest moment, and thus the action scenes had no real stakes or tension.
By contrast, John Link’s “particular set of skills” are having seen some messed up sh*t, and his “superpower” is being a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t really care if he lives or dies. As he asks his sponsor, played by William H. Macy (another could-not-be-more-perfect casting choice), “Does this ever stop being such a f*cking drag?”
By which he means… sobriety, aging, fatherhood, life. Liam Neeson never expressed world weariness this well, and when the bad guys do come calling, John Link dispatches them with curmudgeonly annoyance rather than high-handed seriousness, more bang-your-knee-on-the-coffee-table tantrum than cold-blooded killing spree. It’s like he internalized Danny Glover’s motivation all those years ago and let it ferment into a fine wine. No one has ever been this good at “too old for this sh*t.”
And aside from Mel, there’s Michael Parks playing a peculiarly hilarious Neo-Nazi biker and the incomparable Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) as his tough-as-burlap sidekick. My God, these two. They should be in everything.
There’s a rich history of European directors trying to do American schlock, from Jaume Collet-Serra in Run All Night and Non-Stop to Olivier Megaton in the second two Takens and Transporter, but no one’s ever done it quite so successfully as Jean-Francois Richet (Assault on Precinct 13) does here. He and his screenwriters, Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff (adapting Craig’s book), seem to have deconstructed the Taken movie and spent their time trying to figure out how to make each component just a little bit better, like a Top Chef cooking animal fries (sorry). And this, THIS is exactly how a genre movie should be done.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.