Can Mel Gibson still draw a crowd?

"Edge of Darkness"

The embattled action star returns to the big screen

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Showbiz 411: Not ready to forgive Mel Gibson

Admit it: You experienced a jolt upon seeing that first billboard for "Edge of Darkness" right after New Year's.

There was that name -- Mel Gibson -- and then the man himself, grim-set face and trenchcoated torso coming toward you in an advertisement for a major studio release. The pitch and the persona were familiar, but it still felt odd, like a good friend you had a falling-out with awhile back who suddenly reappears on your Facebook wall. How do you respond?

Warner Bros. and Gibson's agency, WME, are betting that audiences will respond with a cheery "Welcome back!" and solid opening-weekend attendance when "Darkness" opens Jan. 29. Gibson is returning to the big screen after a seven-year absence -- a century in movie-star years -- and studio marketing is aimed squarely at his old fan base. In TV and print ads, it's Gibson alone -- purposeful, vengeful, unstoppable -- a good guy who will bloody the guilty with the righteous weapons of justice.

But how likely is renewed success for the embattled action star? Other than a brief appearance in September on NBC's "The Jay Leno Show," Gibson's only public exposure during the past few years has been in the tabloids.

Take away the self-destructive cocktail of Moonshadows, sugar tits and anti-Semitic taunts he publicly lobbed in July 2006, and you're still looking at a 54-year-old actor who hasn't been onscreen for the better part of a decade. (He most recently appeared in October 2003 in a heavily disguised supporting role when "The Singing Detective" opened.) That would be a challenge for anyone. To paraphrase a line from one of Gibson's most famous movies: Is he getting too old for this shit?

It's easy to forget that for 15 years, Gibson had one of the most consistently successful careers of any modern movie star. From 1987-2002, he starred in 10 movies that grossed more than $100 million apiece domestically, putting him in the league of Will, Jim, Julia, Harrison, Eddie and the two Toms. Along the way, his peers gave him best director and best picture Oscars for "Braveheart" -- distinctions none of the others has.

When Gibson walked away to focus on his directing career, he sparked controversy and collected hundreds of millions of dollars with his self-financed foreign-language epic "The Passion of the Christ." Whatever people thought of his beliefs, he was an artistic force to be reckoned with.

But by the end of summer 2006, Gibson suddenly was toxic after that drunken, vocal run-in with Malibu police. Despite immediate apologies and the beginning of a self-proclaimed "journey through recovery," things unraveled. ABC quickly dropped plans for a Gibson-produced Holocaust-themed miniseries; his wife and mother of their seven children separated from him (they divorced last year); and several prominent industry figures, most notably Sony chief Amy Pascal and Endeavor partner Ari Emanuel, publicly encouraged an industry boycott.

A few months later, Gibson appeared on a few talk shows to promote his latest super-violent writing-directing effort, "Apocalypto," which opened that December to middling boxoffice, raking in $51 million domestically.

Despite the disapprobation of certain Hollywood types, the effect of Gibson's Jew-baiting tirade and other shenanigans on average moviegoers is likely much less significant. Middle America, which helped push "Christ" to a $370 million domestic cume, likely has shrugged off lingering concerns about his bad behavior or the end of his marriage -- if they noted it at all. After all, isn't that what Hollywood celebrities do?

Which means those in the industry who might find Gibson's beliefs and/or behavior repugnant recognize he likely still can make them money with a loyal, if older, fan base.

One industry player noted that his middle-aged, born-again-Christian mother-in-law saw a TV trailer for "Darkness" and said: "I can't wait. I love Mel, and all my friends at the church love Mel."

Still, even with a coterie of committed followers, the real marketing challenge might be more Gibson's age than his antics.

"He's got as good a chance to be as successful as any older actor," one studio producer says. "With the same disadvantages. You look at the Pacinos and Hoffmans and Stallones and Willises -- not a lot of them are movie stars right now. But the guy has as good a chance as anyone, if the movie works, to still be a star."

Hollywood being Hollywood, income potential buys a lot of forgiveness, or at least useful denial. So, three years beyond his traffic stop, Gibson not only is starring in "Darkness," but he's also, as a result of their agency merger last year, a client at WME under Emanuel. ("It works fine," Gibson's longtime agent Ed Limato says of the arrangement. "He's a major client for the company.")

Despite rumors that Gibson initially had trouble getting roles after the tabloid incidents, the actor's camp maintains that his time offscreen was a deliberate choice.

"I had to convince him to act again," says Limato, who brushes off suggestions that Gibson's troubles in 2006 were any cause of his absence. "The man loves to direct. He has his own imagination where he dreams up projects, which have all panned out brilliantly. But now he's back to acting, and he's loving it."

Gibson's return could be merely a creative choice. Given his vast financial holdings and ability to write and direct his own scripts, he has no pressing need to step back in front of the camera. But perhaps Gibson recognizes that any continued career longevity requires a campaign to re-humanize himself, to remind audiences of his talent and his familiarity.

Hollywood has obliged.

The actor has, per folks in his camp, been peppered with offers during the past two years: Roles in "The Book of Eli" (Warners), "The A-Team" (Fox), "Jonah Hex" (Warners), "The Low Dweller" (Relativity), "The 28th Amendment" (Warners), "Dan Mintner: Badass for Hire" (New Line), "By Any Means Necessary" (Paramount) and "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (Overture) were thrown in his path.

Among the major studios, Sony under Pascal remains off the table -- for both parties -- but Warners, with which Gibson has a long working relationship (think "Lethal Weapon"), seems happy to produce and market a Mel

Gibson movie. The studio even paid him his old freight on "Darkness."

Moving forward, Gibson's work agenda is packed. He's producing and starring in "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," an action drama that takes place in a Mexican prison, from a script he co-wrote. That screenplay is being rewritten in advance of the film's March production start under the direction of Adrian Grunberg and Stacy Perskie, Gibson's first and second ADs on "Apocalypto," also being filmed in Veracruz.

William Monahan, who co-wrote "Darkness," is writing a Viking project for Gibson to direct and Leonardo DiCaprio to topline. And Gibson has told writer-director Shane Black that he'll star in "Cold Warrior" for him at Universal should the studio want to make a deal with the actor.

Shrewdly, Gibson is stepping back out to meet audiences in "Darkness," a relatively low-risk genre potboiler that's right in his wheelhouse. (He even did a version of it 14 years ago in "Ransom.")

Another test will come with Summit Entertainment's "The Beaver," a low-budget project in which he'll play a depressed husband and father who begins communicating to, and through, a beaver puppet he wears on his hand.

He was far from an obvious choice to play a -- possibly crazy -- guy who requires a lot of audience sympathy. But at the suggestion of director Jodie Foster, a friend of Gibson's from back in the "Maverick" days, Anonymous Content eventually embraced the off-kilter casting choice.

"I thought it was completely unrealistic because this is really an art movie and pretty quirky," Anonymous Content's Steve Golin says. "Then the light bulb went off. With all the things that he's been through personally, it made a lot of sense. I definitely think that there were some parallels, and he thought that also. It's basically about a guy who's at his wit's end: He's got a difficult relationship with his family and his children, he's suffering from depression, and he's lost his way."

Such verisimilitude could be therapeutic and humanizing -- or an off-putting recipe for disaster.

When we last saw Gibson the movie star, in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," he was a protective single father and fallen priest who regained faith after surviving a menacing brush with an alien. Now, after surviving a menacing brush with his inner demons, he needs to conjure similar magic at the boxoffice.