In the crowded annals of Hollywood infamy, few celebrities have matched Mel Gibson’s dive-bomb from superstar to dirtbag.
Anti-Semitic outbursts, alcohol-fueled rages and now those embarrassing Internet tapes where he threatens the mother of his baby daughter have severely damaged his reputation, possibly beyond repair.
There was a time, however, when he was one of the biggest box-office stars on the planet.
The futuristic “Mad Max” (1979) was his slam-bang introduction to worldwide audiences. Playing an ex-cop who goes on a rampage against roving thugs who killed his wife and child, the film launched one of the great cult franchises. “The Road Warrior” (1981) and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) followed -- and also served as a template for many of Gibson’s subsequent roles where vengeance is vital and torture abounds.
But that savage image took a while to congeal. What marks most of Gibson’s early work is a youthful innocence. He was marvelous in the antiwar film “Gallipoli” (1981) as an Australian soldier in World War I fighting the German-allied Turks.
The following year, playing a foreign correspondent in mid-1960s Indonesia in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Gibson was never more charismatic. His hothouse romance with a British attache (Sigourney Weaver) is proof that sex and politics mix very well indeed. As Fletcher Christian in “The Bounty” (1984), he was an enigmatic idealist whose love for a Tahitian native girl trumps even his enmity for Captain Bligh.
Gibson’s most overlooked film was released the same year. In the tragic “Mrs. Soffel,” he plays a murderer whose prison warden (Diane Keaton) falls in love with him in gloomy turn-of-the-20th-century Pittsburgh. Director Gillian Armstrong frames Gibson’s features in soulful close-ups, giving him the radiance of a silent-movie star.
Considerably steamier and funnier is Robert Towne’s “Tequila Sunrise” (1988), where Gibson, as a scalawag former drug dealer, vies with Kurt Russell’s cop for the favors of a swank restaurateur played by Michelle Pfeiffer at her glossiest.
It was around this time that the “Lethal Weapon” franchise revved up. It’s also when Gibson’s fetish for masochistic jags took hold.
In “Lethal Weapon” (1987) he’s Martin Riggs, a policeman so crazed by his wife’s death that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. This is played for laughs. In its sequel, “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989), Riggs enjoys making people believe he’s crazy (which is supposed to make us think he’s not crazy). By the time “Lethal Weapon 3” (1992) rolled off the assembly line, Gibson’s Three Stooges-Meets-Dragnet routine was old news.
Did you somehow miss Mel as the Prince of Denmark? He’s actually not bad in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” (1990): Given his fondness for self-laceration, the performance is surprisingly, refreshingly uncreepy. Yet inevitably he’s upstaged by a cast that includes Ian Holm, Alan Bates and Paul Scofield, all lethal acting weapons.
It was back to mutilation in “The Man Without a Face” (1993), which Gibson directed and stars in as a horribly disfigured teacher who lives alone on an island off the coast of Maine. In subsequent films directed by Gibson -- the Oscar-winner “Braveheart” (1995),” “Apocalypto” (2006) and, most notoriously, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) -- the rending of the flesh is, in varying degrees, almost pornographic. As the dying Scot warrior William Wallace in “Braveheart,” Gibson cries “Freedom!” as he’s stretched out on the rack. He looks like he enjoys it.
Gibson gets tortured again in “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), by Patrick Stewart no less, but his performance as a nutty, conspiracy-minded New York cabby is one of his trickiest and most original. In “The Patriot” (2000), the producing team that gave us “Independence Day” and “Godzilla” decided to sic Gibson on the Redcoats. He plays a peaceful farmer who turns guerilla fighter to seek revenge for -- what else? -- his son’s death.
In “What Women Want” (2000), Gibson plays a chauvinist pig who, as the result of a freak accident, can hear what women are thinking and is eventually chastened. Seen today, in light of his latest outrage, this film probably plays like high camp. Or a sick joke.
After M. Night Shyamalan’s morbid creepfest “Signs” (2002), where he played an Episcopal priest in modified “Night of the Living Dead” mode, Gibson didn’t have another significant role until this year’s “Edge of Darkness,” a violent action picture where he plays a homicide detective who seeks revenge for -- who would have guessed? -- his daughter’s death.
He has two more pictures in the can: “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” (I’m not sure I want to know) and “The Beaver,” a dark comedy directed by Jodie Foster where he plays a man who communicates through a beaver puppet.
At this point, ventriloquism might not be a bad career move.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).