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French-produced films about American daddies wanting to protect their female offspring have basically become an unofficial subgenre since the success of the first Taken film, so it’s easy to see why French director Jean-Francois Richet (Mesrine, the decent but not exceptional Assault on Precinct 13 remake) signed up to direct Blood Father. Presumably, Liam Neeson wasn’t available so this time another testosterone-addled sexagenarian signed up for the lead: Mel Gibson. The result of their collaboration, which will be released by Lionsgate in August, is a serviceable piece of B-movie entertainment without an ounce of originality. But audiences that respond to films like these are unlikely to think that’s a dealbreaker.
Richet opens the film with a joke — or actually more a sort of tragicomic observation — that perhaps only a foreigner could make. We see an overhead shot of a conveyor belt at a checkout line. Several packs of bullets move by, as well as a packet of gum. Cut to the young woman who buys these items, the jittery Lydia (Erin Moriarty), who also asks for a pack of cigarettes. For that item, however, which is more likely to kill her than others, she needs an ID, which she’s unwilling to show. The reason for that then comes into view: outside the supermarket, a car full of thugs, including her Mexican boyfriend, Jonah (Diego Luna), is waiting for her to bring back the ammunition. And let’s just say it looks unlikely that they’re heading from the supermarket to the shooting range.
The film is based on the eponymous novel by Peter Craig (the son of Sally Field), who also co-wrote the screenplays of Ben Affleck’s The Town and the two parts of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Here, he’s also credited as a producer and has adapted his own novel for the screen with Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton). Unfortunately, after that opening scene, which promised a kind of outsider look at America, what Richet and Craig have in store is a mostly predictable (and predictably violent) ride through a host of southern California subcultures that includes bikers, tattoo artists, former alcoholics, drug dealers, neo-Nazis and illegal immigrants. If the opening sequence seemed concerned about Lydia’s health and well-being, it quickly becomes clear that the film doesn’t extend that courtesy to most of the other characters, who all seem expendable.
All, except of course Lydia’s father, Link (Gibson), who runs a tattoo parlor out of his trailer somewhere in the Coachella Valley (but shot in New Mexico). He’s been sober for two years and one year out of the joint and hopes to live a quiet life in a nondescript trailer park where his AA buddy and mentor, Kirby (William H. Macy), also lives. But as soon as his 16-year-old shows up at his home, even though they haven’t seen each other for a long time, the peace is gone, since she’s followed by three Mexicans out for revenge. What Link doesn’t yet know (but audiences have already seen), is that Lydia took something from Jonah that she can’t give back.
As in his Assault on Precinct 13 — which, somewhat self-consciously, makes an appearance here when Lydia goes to see a movie at a multiplex — the action scenes are spatially coherent and properly put together, even if the film is clearly a modest production. An early sequence involving Link’s trailer is a good example of how minimal effects can have a maximum impact, as a generic shoot-out evolves into something that upends expectations. A motorcycle chase feels more old-school, with even Richet’s visual language of zooms, pans and edits feeling like a throwback to Gibson’s heyday as an action star. And the final showdown is a relatively low-key affair, with Richet trying to put the emphasis on the characters, though genre conventions demand something a bit bigger in terms of action than what’s on offer here. This compact — the film’s only 88 minutes long — and small-scale action vehicle more often than not feels like something from a couple of decades ago, which is not necessarily a bad thing but doesn’t exactly elevate it in a commercial field crowded with big-budget tentpoles.
A sense of individual psychology could have elevated the film to a fusion of action film and psychological drama, like in Richet’s mesmerizing Mesrine diptych. But here, the relationship between father and daughter and the backstories of both characters are barely more than outlines. There’s a hint, for example, that Lydia, who’s only 16, has an incongruous interest in art history, though the film then never expands on that. Similarly, Link’s backstory feels like that of a stock character already encountered in countless other stories and it would have been nice if he’d had something more up his sleeve than the (otherwise admirable) desire to save his daughter whilst hoping, against all odds, that his probation officer doesn’t find out he’s been shooting up half of the state.
Moriarty (the first season of True Detective) doesn’t look 16 but she’s got the right tough-girl attitude required, while Gibson slips into Link as if he’s known this tattooed roughneck with the heart of gold for years. Macy doesn’t have that much to do while Luna, who is offscreen for a lot of the film, doesn’t quite manage to conjure the required mix of gravitas and menace that needs to hang over the movie like a dark cloud.
The New Mexico desert locations are filmed by Robert Gantz in their most Instagram-ready splendor, while Sven Faulconer’s score is appropriately percussive.
Production companies: Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch
Cast: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Michael Parks, William H. Macy, Thomas Mann
Director: Jean-Francois Richet
Screenplay: Peter Craig, Andrea Berloff, based on the novel by Craig
Producers: Chris Briggs, Peter Craig, Pascal Caucheteux, Sebastien K. Lemercier
Executive producer: Jennifer Roth
Director of photography: Robert Gantz
Production designer: Robb Wilson King
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Editor: Steven Rosenblum
Music: Sven Faulconer
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 88 minutes
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