Film Reviews

The Pains of Mel

Armchair shrinks can debate for hours about why Mel Gibson loves to get the snot knocked out of him. A facile answer, considering the star's reputation as a homophobe, is that the lady doth protest too much, and that getting electrically tortured by Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon or hacked by the cutlass of Jason Isaacs in the finale of the current Yankheart, or whatever it's called, is the only sanctioned way he can have such studly fellows rock his world.

Or maybe he just has a Messiah complex -- his wounds in the Mad Max films and others often resemble stigmata, and in the final minutes of Braveheart, he practically gives himself an ascension.

But one thing is certain: Gibson gets brutalized onscreen again and again. He's the biggest bleeder and wincer among leading men since Charlton Heston in the '50s. And because he's plainly in control of his own career, this must at some level reflect a personal taste. It must also reflect an audience taste, as there are few more consistently popular movie stars in the world.

So for those who, for whatever reason, enjoy seeing Mel Gibson pummeled to a bloody pulp, here are some of your best options, all available on video:

The Road Warrior --There's an image in the middle of George Miller's great postapocalyptic chase movie that may be the beginning of the Bloody-Mel icon: Max, pursued by the he-man Wez (Vernon Wells), has just crashed his car, and it's lying upside down. Out of the window wriggles our hero, inverted and bloody and looking like a martyr from a medieval woodcut.

Mrs. Soffel -- At the end of this period drama -- in which Gibson gives, by the way, one of his best and least-remembered performances as turn-of-the-century convict Ed Biddle -- he dies a gruesome and protracted death after escaping prison and being hunted down and shot by a Pennsylvania posse.

Lethal Weapon -- As mentioned above, Gibson gets stripped to the waist and hung up like a side of beef by heroin-dealing tough guy Gary Busey, who then slicks him up with highly conductive fluid and shocks him repeatedly with a long, electrically charged prod.

The Man Without a Face -- In this, the Melster's directorial debut, he plays a man who . . . well, you know, who doesn't have a face. But it was an accident, and not some brawny villain, by which the poor SOB was deprived of the pretty pan that might otherwise have gotten him elected People's Sexiest Man Alive. So maybe this one doesn't count.

Braveheart -- Melheart's next directorial effort found him in the role of Scottish partisan William Wallace, taking a lot of punishment while running around in the company of manly men in kilts. At the end, after three hours of grisly battles in which he is given plenty of preliminary whup-ass, he's disemboweled and quartered by horses.

Conspiracy Theory -- In this political thriller, Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner doesn't let his old pal Mel down; he makes sure suave heavy Patrick Stewart injects the star with hallucinogens, then repeatedly shoves his head underwater.

Payback -- A Bloody-Mel classic! At the end of this uncharacteristically (and agreeably) mean-spirited Gibson vehicle, our hero is tortured at length. His gets his digits brutalized so horridly that even veteran tough guy James Coburn finally must turn away in revulsion. But the rest of us -- Mel included, no doubt -- sit there grinning happily.

It takes a Hollywood producer to not be able to see that a full-length, extravagantly produced, star-studded feature-film version of Rocky & Bullwinkle, however well-intentioned, wasn't likely to work. Jay Ward's early-'60s series tracing the exploits of the indomitable "Mooze and Skvirrel" was the greatest Cold War satire ever smuggled onto TV disguised as a kiddie cartoon. It ought to be on the required-viewing-for-wiseasses syllabus forever. If you've seen the movie and need to remind yourself why you loved the show in the first place, or if you are among the unfortunate uninitiated who've never seen the show, there are several video options.

In the early '90s, Buena Vista Home Video released a dozen or so Rocky & Bullwinkle videos. These cleanly edited official editions feature about one full R&B saga per tape, fleshed out with wonderful supporting features such as "Peabody's Improbable History" and "Fractured Fairy Tales." They run about $20 on, and are also readily available for rent.

A Rocky & Bullwinkle video series is also available, and much more economical (I found them at Toys "R" Us for $5.99), from those public-domain raiders at GoodTimes Home Video. Each of these tapes, which include such fine sagas as "Last Angry Moose" and "Mucho Loma" -- a south-of-the-border adventure set in a town with a name meaning "Much Mud" -- also includes a generous selection of supporting features with Peabody, Aesop and even Jay Ward's own Baron Munchausen, Commander McBragg. Beware, though: A lot of repetitive material hasn't been trimmed, and the boxes admit that these videos are "not authorized by Jay Ward Productions or any other entity."

True students of Ward's sensibility may wish to check out Crusader Rabbit, his charming 1949 series, believed to be the first cartoon show ever produced specifically for TV. The title character was an intrepid little bunny with a boyish falsetto; his slow-thinking sidekick was Ragland T. Tiger; and their nemesis was the mustachioed, black-hatted Dudley Nightshade. They were clearly the prototypes for Rocky, Bullwinkle and Snidely Whiplash, respectively.

Finding Crusader Rabbit on video ain't easy. A few public-domain collections of the later, post-Ward episodes are reasonably available and priced, but Rhino's 1985 collections of the early black-and-white episodes, "Crusader Rabbit vs. the State of Texas," and "Crusader Rabbit vs. the Pirates," routinely sell on eBay for $50 or more. It's time for Rhino to consider a reissue.