Mel Gibson is another one of those super stars of the 80’s living in the same neighborhood as Bruce Willis and not too far down the street from even Arnold Schwarzenegger. If he was in a movie in the 80’s and for much of the 90’s it was box office gold. He did drama, comedy, and action films all with equal success. He began writing, producing, and directing films too. He has starred in over 47 films and television series, produced 16 films, and directed 5. He’s been nominated for numerous awards and won two Oscars and a Golden Globe for Braveheart. Then in the 2000’s, the man went nuts. He became a religious fanatic at best and a racist and an accused woman abuser at his worst. With that knowledge, it’s difficult to look at Gibson’s body of work in the same way that we once did but the truth is that he’s made an indelible impact on pop culture and on the art of film in a positive way. So here are the best films that Gibson has starred in:
10. Mad Max (1979)
Most Americans weren’t aware of “aussiexploitation” films in the 70’s. These are exploitation films of all of the different varieties being made in Australia. The documentary Not Quite Hollywood is a fantastic primer to these highly entertaining films. Mel Gibson made his first real splash in America in one of these exploitation films, Mad Max. The post apocalyptic action film was brought over to the states and Gibson’s voice was even recorded over as it was released because distributors felt his accent was too thick for American tastes. The film was a low budget vehicular action film only a step or two above Deathrace 2000 in its production but Mel Gibson even then had true star power and his performance, which was eventually restored, helped make the film the cult classic that it is today.
9. Maverick (1994)
In 1957 James Garner starred in a television series titled Maverick which followed the exploits of gambling brothers Bret and Bart Maverick. The two, and later their cousin, traveled the countryside of the old west looking for card games. The show wasn’t your typical gunfighter type show because if a fight broke out these two would head for the hills. In 1994 Richard Donner set out to bring the classic television series to the big screen so he called his ol’ buddy Mel Gibson to come and play the title role. This film focused on Bret as he gambled and swindled his way across the west. This time though he meets his match in Annabelle Bransford a professional card gamer and small time thief played by Jodie Foster. James Garner also plays a major role in the film too but not just as a cameo he holds his own on screen with Gibson throughout the film. The film is mostly predictable in its story but there are a few nice twists and Gibson and Foster do a great job with the romance and the one upsmanship that builds throughout the film. It’s slick and funny and a surprisingly good time.
8. Signs (2002)
The name M. Night Shyamalan is pretty much mud these days, but he did make a few good films and one of them is Signs. This film in a lot of ways is Shyamalan’s tribute to the classic War of the Worlds story and for better or for worse it does feature a twist ending. What makes this film stand above the twist upon which it’s based is the relationship Gibson’s character has with his kids. He plays a single father and reverend living in a small town and trying to find a way to deal with the epic event of an alien invasion on an extremely small level. The strongest scene in the film features the family attempting to have what they think will be their last meal together.
7. Conspiracy Theory (1997)
In a lot of ways, in most ways actually, Mel Gibson owes his career to Richard Donner. Donner directed Conspiracy Theory from a script written by Brian Helgeland. If the name Brian Helgeland doesn’t stand out to you it should because he also wrote the screenplays for Man on Fire, Payback, Mystic River, L.A. Confidential, and many more. Along with Mel Gibson this film also features Julia Roberts and Captain Picard himself Patrick Stewart. In this film Gibson plays a mentally unstable man obsessed with conspiracy theories. He also loves a woman that he’s never officially met. He just well sort of harmlessly stalks her. Things get action packed when she becomes involved in one of his conspiracies. This film does feature that patented Gibson humor laced charm but it’s shrouded in a layer of darkness not common in Donner/Gibson films. It may take you aback at first seeing a little crazier version of the Gibson character from the 80’s being dropped into a darker sort of film. This one is also interesting in that there’s no room for Gibson to play his scenes big. In fact the entire picture feels claustrophobic which fits well with the main character’s life. This one is entertaining and action packed but it’s more of a cat and mouse sort of thing rather than Gibson’s more typical bad ass action hero situation.
6. Ransom (1996)
Ransom is a film directed by Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Backdraft) and it stars Rene Russo, Gary Sinise, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor, Liv Schreiber, and Donnie Wahlberg. In this film, Russo and Gibson play Tom and Kate Mullen, a well to do husband and wife raising a young son. While dealing with a major business deal Tom and Kate take their son out for a day of fun. Their son gets separated from them for just a second in the crowd and then he’s gone. A group of thugs begin calling the Mullen’s demanding a ransom payment. When things go awry, against the better judgment of the FBI and his wife Tom takes matters into his own hands in an incredibly dramatic way. This is taught suspenseful and dramatic film with very little fluff to get in the way of the characters reacting to the situation. There’s also solid drama and a few twists along the way. This is one of those Gibson films that a couple can watch together and equally enjoy.
5. The Road Warrior (1981)
The Road Warrior is the bigger budget sequel to the film that gave Gibson his start, Mad Max. In this film, Max encounters a group of peaceful people just trying to survive and get to a place of legend, a place where they are supposed to be able to build a better life. Max is still a bitter man after the death of his family in the previous film but a lovely woman, an almost Neanderthal-like kid, and the promise of a lot of gas convinces him to help these people reach their goal. What follows is one of the greatest and longest car chase and car battle scenes ever committed to film. The script is incredibly slim and the story is as basic as it gets but the pacing is solid even with some precisely timed quiet slower moments. This film is a true classic in the B movie genre.
4. Payback (1999)
Mel Gibson has only done a couple of dark films in his career and Payback, the director’s cut in particular, is the darkest without a doubt. Gibson plays a thief left for dead buy his turncoat gang after a job. Well unfortunately for the gang he survives and after some time to heal up out of town he returns seeking a little revenge but mostly he just wants his cut. He fights his way from the bottom of the gang to the top seeking what he deserves. The funny part of the story is that his cut doesn’t amount to that much money in the whole scheme of things. In fact some of the crooks he assaults while looking for his cut offer him more than what he is asking and he turns the extra down. He’s the epitome of a good villain. Tonally this film is a little off balance especially if you watch the theatrical version because it jumps around from fairly dark to campy and funny. If you’re ok with that mix, this film becomes very entertaining. The preferred version of the film is the director’s cut which manages to smooth out the rough tonal edges by making the overall film consistently dark with just a few moments of comedy relief. At the time the film was to be released Gibson demanded the film be recut because he felt the heavy darkness of his character might be detrimental to his image. Little did he know where he’d be in just over 10 years. The film was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, someone Gibson is quite familiar with since he wrote the Lethal Weapon films.
3. Lethal Weapon (1987)
When Richard Donner, Mel Gibson, and Danny Glover came together for this film, did they know that they were creating a new formula for buddy cop movies that would be copied for years after this film was released? One thing’s for sure this one was such a success that they must have known fairly quickly that they did start a franchise with the film. Lethal Weapon was a break out hit for Gibson and it established he and Glover as the two greatest buddy cops to ever hit the silver screen. The film starts off with Glover’s character, Sgt. Murtaugh investigating the death of the daughter of one of an old friend. As his investigation progresses he is saddled with a new partner, a burnout suicide case named Martin Riggs played by Gibson. Riggs is truly on the edge after the death of his wife and child he has little care for himself. He is a good guy but he way to quick to put himself in harm’s way to save the day and that goes opposite of Murtaugh’s style. Murtaugh is a careful old school cop with a family to think of so he plays it very safe. Among their enemies in this film is a mercenary played by the truly crazy Gary Busey. The Busey/Gibson matchup at the end of the film is one of the greatest scenes in cop movies ever. They’re both near insane by the time they faceoff but Gibson is still a good person. This film does carry some 80’s baggage in its look but it also features the production values of a big budget 80’s action flick which means tons of real stunts and thrills galore with no CGI to turn the movie into a cartoon. For those interested in Gibson as an actor this film is a must watch because parts of the Martin Riggs character he plays here appear in nearly every movie he does after this one.
2. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
The Lethal Weapon franchise could easily be credited with sending Mel Gibson’s star into the stratosphere. The Mad Max movies got him attention and plenty of work but it wasn’t until he grew out the mullet and strapped on a gun that he truly found his place in American cinema. Of the four films in this franchise this second film is without a doubt the best installment in the series. Glover and Gibson settled into these characters making them earthy and real with real emotions and real family problems to go along with all of the high concept action of the main story. It doesn’t matter how great the heroes are without a great villain a film like Lethal Weapon 2 can end being highly forgettable. The dynamic duo found their perfect nemesis in Joss Ackland as Arjen Rudd a corrupt ambassador using his “diplomatic immunity” to smuggle drugs, money, and even a car out of the country. Add Joe Pesci to the mix as a small time money launderer and you’ve got comedy, action, and drama to spare. The film was deftly directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, Goonies, Superman) during a period where he was truly hitting his stride as a filmmaker. During this film Mel Gibson was more of the action star but Glover actually got the one liner to remember which came as Arjen was declaring himself untouchable by holding up his ID and screaming “Diplomatic Immunity!” with Murtaugh replying “Has Been Revoked!”
1. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart not only stars Gibson as the main character but it also features him behind the camera. Gibson and directed some of his other smaller dramatic films but this was his first foray into something much more epic, epic in scope, and epic in length. Gibson plays William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish commoner who manages to convince the many clans to work together to fight against a brutal English King. This film shows Gibson to be a layered actor capable of scene stealing bravado as in many of his previous films but also deep yet subtle emotion. The battle scenes are enormous and extremely violent without being exploitative. The goal of the violence was to show the nature of the events of the era and to put a face on the larger thematic elements of the story that include patriotism, loss, compassion, sadness, and love. The film deservedly won 5 Academy Awards including Best Director and Best film. Gibson proves with this film that he can execute sweeping and gorgeous action scenes while still focusing in on the smaller detailed moments. The film runs over three hours and features several smaller stories along with the larger war story but none of it is ever messy or dull. Every story ends up being important to the gripping and moving climax of the film. Braveheart is, without question, the pinnacle of Gibson’s career as an actor and as a director.