From ‘Mad Max’ To His Infamous Rant: Mel Gibson’s Highs And Lows

Can Friday's 'Apocalypto' put the director/ leading man back on top?

Of all the things to come out of Mel Gibson’s mouth in the last few years, the most surprising of all may very well be “Thank you.”

That’s because Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” which hits theaters Friday, is getting some of the best reviews of his career and seems poised to make an Oscar run come February (see ” ‘Apocalypto’: No, It’s Not A Heavy Metal Band, It’s Mel Gibson’s Next Movie” ). That notion might have seemed ridiculous as recently as four months ago, when the director made anti-Semitic comments on the heels of a drunk-driving arrest.

As amazing as it might one day seem to younger readers, Gibson was once the biggest movie star in the world (it’s true, kids!) — an actor who headlined some of the most successful films of the last two decades. Since recent events seem to indicate Gibson has shifted his focus from acting to directing, we look back at some of the highs and lows of his two-decade run as a leading man:

High: “Mad Max” (1979)
Produced for an estimated $350,000, Gibson’s portrayal of Max Rockatansky was the apex of the cinematic antihero — a man who gave his enemy a hacksaw and a choice 25 years before anyone ever heard of the Jigsaw Killer. International audiences ate it up to the tune of more than $100 million — giving it the Guinness Book world record for highest profit-to-cost ratio in motion-picture history (since beaten by “The Blair Witch Project”). For its American release, distributors dubbed Gibson’s voice, fearing audiences would reject his Australian accent. He has not suffered the indignity again.

Low: “The Bounty” (1984)
Remember that movie with Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, Daniel Day Lewis and Lawrence Olivier? If not, you’re hardly alone. The fifth movie to depict the famous mutiny against Captain Bligh, “The Bounty” was a box-office disaster, particularly inauspicious for Gibson as it came after a two-year film hiatus. Worse yet were reports from the set that had Gibson at odds with teetotaling co-star Hopkins — early warning shots for Gibson in what would be a protracted, and very public, battle with alcohol abuse.

High: “Lethal Weapon” (1987)
The film that vaulted Gibson to the upper echelon of Hollywood leading men, “Lethal Weapon” was an action tour de force, an international blockbuster and a genre-redefining buddy-cop movie that influenced everything from “Se7en” to “Rush Hour.” It was also Gibson’s first opportunity to showcase his comedic skills. The suicide scene (where Gibson talks a jumper out of killing himself by jumping with him) remains classic, of course, because it highlights everything Gibson does best as an actor — mixing pathos, humor and spontaneity seamlessly.

Low: “Air America” (1990)
Sandwiched like a stale bit of cheese in between two “Lethal Weapon” sequels, “Air America” was a failed attempt at recapturing the magic between Gibson and “Weapon” co-star Danny Glover. Problem was, both Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. played it zany, and with no straight man, the film bombed worse than a Michael Richards comedy routine. At 15 percent positive, the movie has the lowest rating of Mel Gibson’s career, according to critical aggregator RottenTomatoes.com.

High: “Hamlet” (1990)
There are more things in Mel Gibson’s repertoire, dear friends, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. His portrayal of Hamlet was one of the outright craziest, and best, of the last few decades. Eschewing the prince of Denmark’s famous pensiveness, Gibson outshined even his most seasoned co-stars. It surely can’t be a coincidence that soon after this role, Gibson found himself directing — nothing demands more interpretation than the Bard. Could it have been the proactive power to make choices on this movie that led to his desire to make films himself?

Low: “The Man Without a Face” (1993)
Gibson got critical kudos for his directorial debut, but “The Man Without a Face” did piddling business at the domestic box office (it was only the 62nd most popular movie of 1993 alone). Gibson would also find himself in the crosshairs of controversy after several critics noted the book on which the movie was based contained criticism of homophobia — absent, some said, from Gibson’s film version.

High: “Braveheart” to “Signs” (1996-2002)
At the top of his game artistically, Gibson’s box-office clout (not to mention his freshly won pair of Oscars) gave him the “Freeeedom!” to explore a wide range of roles — from a Revolutionary War hero to a cocky American rooster. Seven of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of his career were released during this period, including “Signs,” Gibson’s biggest box-office smash.

Highs and lows (2002-2006)
Although he hasn’t had a leading role in a movie since “Signs” in 2002, Gibson’s highest high and lowest low might have come in the four years since. It was with his own money that Gibson made “The Passion of the Christ,” a worldwide phenomenon impossible to dismiss. Charges of anti-Semitism stemming from the film only grew larger after a DUI arrest included a tirade against the Jews who are “responsible for all the wars in the world,” he said.

“Apocalypto” — like “Passion,” a film told in a foreign, archaic language — will tip the scales one way or the other. Will it be good news or bad, a high or a low?

We’ll find out soon enough. Stay tuned.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Apocalypto.”

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