Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Mel Gibson in Force of Nature. (Lionsgate)
Rude, ornery Mel Gibson is the best Mel Gibson, at least on the screen.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ate-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little anyway; he works because he still has something to say, and the main thing he seems to want to discuss is his own demons.

Force of Nature, a low-budget B-movie thriller just released via VOD, works best when Gibson is onscreen to rain belligerence on all comers but gradually disintegrates in its last act. As a strong hurricane bears down on San Juan, Puerto Rico, director Michael Polish skillfully sets up the various conflicts: There’s man against weather, cop against criminal, cop against his own conscience, and, just for fun, hints of a man-eating animal plus maybe a Nazi war criminal. Amid all of this chaos, though, only one element is truly scary: Mel Gibson in beast mode.

Gibson plays a cantankerous retired cop suffering from emphysema of the soul, plus lots of physical complaints. Almost all of the movie takes place where he lives, in a San Juan apartment building that he refuses to leave against all advice.

A pair of young cops (Emile Hirsch, Stephanie Cayo), the man prematurely burnt-out and cynical, the woman eager and glowing with that fresh-out-of-the-academy shine, come to the building with orders to clear out anyone still remaining. Sporting a go-to-hell shirt and a beer belly, Mel plays Ray, an ex-cop who cut a few corners in his day and is now paying the price, with various body parts treating him like internal investigators determined to take him out. Luckily, he has one source of relief from his troubles: “Oxymoron,” he says, chugging some pills. “It’s good for the pain.” Ray, like most of Gibson’s characters these days — notably Blood Father (2016) and Dragged Across Concrete (2018), two punch-in-the faces outbursts of cinema that are much better than this middling one — suggests that Mel is choosing his roles based on their therapeutic value. By the time he’s done, Mel may have had as much to say about self-poisoning anger-management cases aching for a second chance to prove they’re good dads as Woody Allen has said about neurotic Jewish intellectuals. Whenever Gibson is on screen, the movie is amusingly nasty.

The setup and the middle of the movie are fine, but Polish doesn’t quite deliver on the promise, allowing contrivances to rule the last third. Along with Gibson and Hirsch, a child actor who fell out of favor with Hollywood after becoming an aggressive alcoholic, there is a third reclamation project in the cast: Kate Bosworth, who plays Ray’s thick-skinned doctor daughter. Bosworth, another child actor, became a leading starlet of the early 2000s and was cast as Lois Lane in the ill-fated Superman Returns (2006) but never won a remotely comparable part again.

The sense that everyone’s best days are far behind them is a key ingredient here; Puerto Rico is depicted as a sort of lint trap of American losers, the kind of place where you wind up after you’ve fallen clean through the American mainland and even Florida won’t take you. Hirsch’s character, the too-young-to-be-this-broken Cardillo, doesn’t even speak Spanish and plainly doesn’t belong here, but who else would tolerate him? Gibson does a Ratso Rizzo voice as Ray probes into the younger cop’s past: “How’d it go down?” “It got me down here,” Cardillo says.

As the movie goes on, it becomes a routine heist story, with lots of gunplay and fisticuffs sparked by the arrival of a criminal mastermind who calls himself John the Baptist (David Zayas). An overbaked musical score and frantic editing of the fight scenes undermine much of the good work of Polish and screenwriter Cory Miller. Neither of them seems to have noticed that although Gibson gets only third billing, he’s the one we really care about, with all of his dents and sins. “I’m such an a**hole,” he says, to no one, hawking up lung divots and treating everyone around him like co-conspirators in a longstanding plot against him.

As Ray takes on paternal roles with not only his daughter but the inexperienced lady cop, we want him to weaponize his pariah status as he did in Blood Father, to take the jagged pieces of his ruined soul and stab all the bad guys in the eyeballs with them. The direction the movie chooses in the early going is the one it should have stuck with: As both the hurricane and the gang of criminals move in, this one apartment building is about to turn into hell. In that case, who better to serve as your guide than the damned?

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