As the John Wick spin-off The Continental arrives on streaming services, all eyes have been on the most famous member of the cast, playing the omnipotent figure running the titular hotel: yes, Mel Gibson has returned – yet again.
Reaction to the first episode has been divided between those so offended that Gibson is in a major role in a high-profile series that they denounce the show immediately, and those who acknowledge that Gibson is giving the kind of fearless, high-drama performance that gives the whole shebang a shot in the arm. It may not have Keanu Reeves any longer, but it does have the actor who played Martin Riggs instead.
All the same, Gibson’s A-list credentials have been repeatedly tarnished by everything from accusations of homophobia and bigotry (repeatedly denied) to two separate, notorious incidents: one in which he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and promptly came out with a series of sexist and anti-semitic slurs, and another when he was recorded wishing a variety of hideous fates on a former girlfriend of his. Yet after years in the Hollywood wilderness on both occasions, he made one tentative comeback and one fully triumphant one. If he no longer enjoys the fame that he once did, his presence in The Continental is a welcome reminder of what a superb actor he can be.
Yet in truth, Gibson has always been one of the most versatile figures in Hollywood. He may be best known for his all-action roles as a leading man, but he can also do searing drama, dark (and light) comedy and, on one surprisingly successful occasion, Shakespeare. And he’s one of the most talented directors working today, even if his most lucrative film, the near-unwatchable Biblical torture porn epic The Passion of the Christ, has no place on this list. Here are 15 of the best films (plus one TV show) that he’s been involved in – ranked from worst to best.
15. Conspiracy Theory (1997)
The combination of Gibson, his Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner and Julia Roberts was always likely to result in a big hit, and so it proved with the action-comedy Conspiracy Theory, revolving around a paranoid New York taxi driver who sees the workings of Big Government everywhere, only to find out that his imaginings are all too real. In our age of YouTube cranks and mass disinformation, the film has greater relevance than ever before, and Gibson is not afraid to make his manic protagonist both comic and far from likeable: after all, comparatively few summer blockbusters dare to make their supposed hero a stalker. And how many films are you likely to see in which Patrick Stewart’s baddie gets bitten on the nose?
14. Get the Gringo (2012)
Even when Gibson was deep in his Hollywood purdah, he still continued to work – aided, perhaps, by the fact that he was able to finance his own films with his Passion of the Christ fortune – and this witty, hugely enjoyable thriller is one of his most diverting pictures. The plot, involving Gibson’s master criminal being imprisoned in a Mexican prison and scheming his way back into both freedom and profit, is nothing wildly original, but there’s an infectious sense of fun and wit that makes this brief, amusing B-movie a very pleasant way of spending an hour and a half. Gibson not only starred and produced in it, but also co-wrote it; it would not have been a vast surprise to discover that he all but directed it as well, so closely does it resemble the most successful aspects of his own pictures.
13. The Bounty (1984)
David Lean envisioned a vast epic, possibly over two films, about the famous Mutiny on the Bounty, but ill health of screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons) and budget constraints eventually saw the project being directed by the Australian filmmaker Roger Donaldson and condensed into one picture. Gibson is well cast as the idealistic Fletcher Christian, second-in-command to Anthony Hopkins’s tyrannical Captain Bligh on the infamous vessel, and he manages to hold his own against one of the starriest supporting casts ever assembled, including Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson and – naturally – Neil Morrissey. He’s also a talented enough actor to capture the contradictions in Christian, a man who was both principled and also conducted a mutiny knowing full well that he would be hunted down and executed by the then all-powerful Royal Navy if he was ever caught. He makes his character both sympathetic and flawed.
12. Payback (1999)
John Boorman’s existential masterpiece Point Blank might never have seemed in need of a remake, but Brian Helgeland’s wittily misanthropic crime thriller does a fine job of updating it. Much-discussed behind-the-scenes conflict between Gibson and Helgeland eventually resulted in the latter releasing a director’s cut that feels like an entirely different film, cutting Gibson’s voiceover and featuring a darker, more ambiguous ending. Still, the cinematic version is a bracingly unpleasant picture, revolving around Gibson’s Porter taking bloody revenge on the gang who have shot him and left him for dead, that more than lives up to its tagline of “Get ready to root for the bad guy”. Perhaps one of Gibson’s more consistent traits as an actor is a lack of desire to be liked; certainly, his Porter comes across as every bit as villainous as those whom he is seeking vengeance on.
11. Ransom (1996)
Popular opinion is divided as to what Ron Howard’s best film is, but his splendidly nasty crime thriller Ransom must be up there. The film is helped immensely by Gibson’s nuanced performance as squillionaire tycoon Tom Mullen, whose ascent to unimaginable wealth has been helped by some dodgy business dealings along the way, and the film sensibly suggests that there is no such thing as a truly innocent party – save, naturally, the poor child who is kidnapped for ransom. Howard taps into a darkness seldom present in the rest of his films, and the central scene, in which Gibson confounds the police by presenting a vast public bounty for his son’s return – or the death of his kidnappers – presents a juicy moral quandary only slightly let down by the picture’s relatively conventional punch-up ending.
10. Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
The director S. Craig Zahler has attracted a mixture of criticism and praise for his visceral and uncompromising films, many of which are perceived to contain a reactionary or conservative message. His crime thriller Dragged Against Concrete, starring Gibson and Vince Vaughn as a pair of cops who find themselves embroiled in the repercussions of a robbery, is a perfect example of his signature style of filmmaking; baroque, violent and devoid of sentiment or happy endings. It’s also compelling and viscerally charged from start to finish. Gibson, always drawn to the dark side, relishes the chance to play a morally compromised detective with enormous subtlety, never playing for likeability but still conjuring up sympathy for this particular devil in the most unexpected of ways.
9. The Continental (2023)
Gibson has made a vast amount of largely undistinguished action films lately, alternating between villainous authority figures and paternalistic mentors. But his major role in The Continental – admittedly a TV show rather than a movie –allows him to go for broke for the first time in years. As the Continental’s manager Cormac O’Connor, his character’s name might suggest an Irish-American playwright or poet, but the profane outbursts that frequently issue forth from his mouth leave the audience in no doubt that he is an extremely dangerous and unaccountable figure. Yet with dialogue like “I come from the marrow of the almighty”, it’s obvious that Gibson is having the time of his life.
6. Hamlet (1990)
It sounded like a joke when it was first announced: Mel Gibson, action hero extraordinaire, playing Hamlet, famously a man who is unable to take action when he needs to. Yet what Franco Zeffirelli’s film does so intelligently is to contrast Gibson’s macho image from the Lethal Weapon films with the tormented indecision of Shakespeare’s Dane, leading to an intriguingly unusual perspective on the protagonist. It’s got the best supporting cast of virtually any Shakespeare adaptation of the past half-century – everyone from Ian Holm and Alan Bates to Paul Scofield and Helena Bonham Carter – and Zeffirelli manages to rein in his star just enough to mean that, when he finally turns into the indomitable avenger, the audience is invited to wonder if it’s all too little, too late. Pop fact: Zeffirelli was inspired to cast Gibson after watching Lethal Weapon, and seeing a scene in which Riggs contemplates suicide – just as, famously, Hamlet does.
7. Gallipoli (1981)
Before Mel Gibson was a movie star, he was an actor, and Peter Weir’s painfully moving WWI drama can remind even the most sceptical of audiences how good he was when he was working with a filmmaker he respected. Weir has never made a bad film, and he’s an actor’s director to the max, which makes Gibson’s restrained, decidedly unstarry performance as Frank Dunne, a cynical layabout who ends up reluctantly fighting for the British Empire, stand out. The film is justly famous for its pessimistic ending, revolving around Dunne being seconds too late to halt a doomed attack by his comrades, but everything about Gallipoli is classy and assured. Like many of Weir’s films, it deserves to be better loved.
6. Braveheart (1995)
Yes, it’s got simplistic (to say nothing of wildly historically inaccurate) politics. Yes, Gibson’s accent as the founding father of Scottish independence William Wallace is dodgy, although nowhere near as dismal as, say, Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. And, yes, it’s a bit long at three hours. But Gibson’s sweeping drama, which he both directed and starred in, remains a last gasp of pre-CGI historical epics, where the battle scenes are superbly staged on the grandest of scales, and his likeable, charismatic central performance puts you on the hero’s side for the film’s duration. Admittedly, it plays rather differently if you’re north of the border, but some of the cheesy-but-stirring lines (“You may take our lives but you will never take… our freedom!”) remain classic, and most would agree it deserved its five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
5. Signs (2002)
M. Night Shyamalan’s sombre, low-key alien invasion drama has always divided audiences. Some consider its avoidance of special-effects bombast refreshing, while others wish for a few old-fashioned thrills. Most, however, accept that Gibson’s performance in the lead, as a priest who has lost his faith after his wife’s death, is one of his best. Eschewing conventional heroics in favour of a quiet contemplation of the infinite, the actor has no he-man moments or witty one-liners, but instead is allowed to play to his strengths as an ordinary, unexceptional man who is caught up in a situation far beyond his comprehension. It was probably Gibson’s last significant performance in a studio film, and remains one of his finest hours.
4. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Hollywood figures who are cancelled are not supposed to return in glory, let alone with Oscar-winning films that see them nominated for every award under the sun. It’s ironic, given Gibson’s history of making films that revolve around extreme violence, that the war film that saw his grand comeback tells the story of the pacifist Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who nonetheless served with enormous courage during 1945’s Battle of Okinawa without firing a shot. Not only is the film executed with exceptional skill – as ever with Gibson – but virtually every single scene feels like a deliberate retort to detractors who would call him little but a bigot, which gives it a rare intensity and anger. Andrew Garfield’s excellent in the lead, and was duly Oscar-nominated, but this is Gibson’s film, a superbly made war picture that doubles up as an unapologetic request for readmission to the top table: it was granted.
3. Mad Max 2 (1981)
Of Gibson’s three Mad Max films, the first is the bleakest and most nihilistic, and the third is the most eccentric, but, for many, the second is where the series reached its peak. Known as The Road Warrior in America – a name that many still call it by – it’s more violent than the first film and contains several jaw-dropping action scenes, as Gibson’s drifter Max Rockatansky puts at least some of the angst that he was carrying in the first film after the murder of his family behind him, and gets on with battling a gang of feral, post-apocalyptic bikers. Gibson has always been at home with parts that are both loquacious and taciturn, and here – in one of the roles with the least lines of dialogue he ever played – his poised, brooding charisma carries the film.
2. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Of the four Lethal Weapon films – and apparently a fifth, if Gibson gets his way – the second one is the funniest, the third the silliest and the fourth the most banal. But it’s the first that remains one of the Eighties’ finest action films, with Richard Donner’s superb direction serving Shane Black’s sublime script. Yet the picture would never have worked as well as it does were it not for Gibson’s intense performance as Martin Riggs, giving freshness to the old cliches of the cop on the edge with nothing to lose. Danny Glover as his put-upon partner gives the film its heart, and Gary Busey’s baddie its overt menace, but its star remains compulsively watchable, even as the film all but establishes the rules of traditional buddy cop dramas that countless other pictures would follow.
1. Apocalypto (2006)
Released shortly after the first of his career-threatening scandals – when he was arrested in LA for driving under the influence – Apocalypto was the follow-up to Passion of the Christ, and, like that film, garnered headlines for being made entirely in an obscure subtitled language (in this case Mayan). However, while his Jesus epic is very hard going, this propulsive thriller, largely revolving around a young warrior’s desperate quest to get home to his family while being hunted by his enemies, is a masterpiece of action cinema.
It contains sequences of extreme violence – most notably, a centrepiece of human sacrifice at a temple that immediately takes its place in the annals of astonishingly executed and unforgettable cinematic blow-outs – but also has an unforgettable twist at the end, making audiences reassess everything that they’ve seen for the previous two hours. It may well be the best film Gibson has ever been involved in, and that is saying a lot.