It’s an interesting, leftfield surprise for day two of the challenge. Despite being a perfectly respectable directorial debut for Mel Gibson, who also serves up a powerful, brooding performance as the film’s star, 1993’s The Man Without A Face is nevertheless a bit of a letdown in the Hard Bastard stakes. In the adaptation of Isabelle Holland’s 1972 novel of the same name, Mel is Justin McLeod, a painter who has been living a reclusive existence in a small 1962 Maine town, due to a mysterious accident that has left his face and torso hideously disfigured. The locals fear him, as he “never comes out of his dungeon,” but disappointingly he is not an isolated, retired special-ops assassin just waiting to be called out of retirement for once last all-action assignment.
A former teacher, McLeod crosses paths with Chuck Norstadt (impressive child star Nick Stahl), a troubled young boy who desperately wants to pass a military academy’s entrance exam, and who sees the damaged scholar as his best hope for success. Over an enlightening, soul-searching summer, the two form a unique friendship and learn some important life lessons about loyalty and not judging people by appearances, when some alarming revelations are made about McLeod’s past.
The lead pair share remarkable chemistry and the picture is full of moving, memorable moments, but there is a distinct lack of breathtaking, high-octane action. It is a ‘talky’ film and very little blows up or is threatened by terrorists. In fact, nobody gets shot or maimed at all, and those expecting an exciting, explosive explanation for McLeod’s disfigurement will probably be disappointed.
Gibson certainly delivers a towering, commanding performance from under some convincing prosthesis, proving that he is much more than a simple action man. Happily, his character is still a bit of a hardass, the kind of guy who helps the kid learn by making him dig massive holes out back and subjects him to other messy, physically exhausting tasks that help him learn in a fun, roundabout way, kind of like Mr Miyagi. He may not shoot anyone, but Mel is on heroic form here, taking a big chance on a poor kid whose ditzy mother has had three kids by three different guys and who says things like “I’m not cut out for this mothering racket!” McLeod guides him through a turbulent time by helping him get over his daddy issues and achieve his dreams, and while the pizza-faced tutor may regularly paint and recite Shakepseare, it is to Gibson’s credit that the prof always remains rugged, masculine and dangerous, threatening to explode into a frightening fit of rage at any moment. He maintains a tough, steely exterior, wary of letting anyone in and quietly simmers away, keeping us guessing as to what his secret is.
When McLeod’s secret is revealed, despite not involving helicopters or ninjas, it is still a doozy. Creepy ‘did-he-or-didn’t he?’ revelations about his past and how he came to be in his current predicament flip his relationship with young Norstadt on its head, forcing us to question our feelings about their friendship and his intentions. Brilliantly, Gibson decides to keep things delightfully ambiguous which makes the film stand out as a daring, provocative debut. For Lethal Weapon fans who have rented this one by mistake, he even chucks in a bonus glimpse of the wild-eyed Mad Mel we know and love in a thrilling scene where haunted, exacerbated McLeod contemplates suicide and plays chicken with an oncoming articulated lorry. Sadly, the scene does not end in incendiary vehicular carnage, but it is nice to see Mel throwing the action junkies a bone.
Any battles in this one are either metaphorical or fought in a courtroom with words and truth, rather than swords and grenades, but the film is still worth a watch, even if it doesn’t exactly do much to solidify Mel’s badass Hard Bastard credentials. The Man Without a Face was Mel discovering his groove in the director’s chair, playing it safe before going all-out with the gargantuan, arsecheek-baring, savage battles of Braveheart and is a small, wonderfully observed examination of a tender, unlikely friendship. If you like that sort of thing.
INDESTRUCTIBILTY: 2/10 Just one look at him tells you he is only too human, though he gets points for standing up to persecution.
COMBAT SKILLS: 1/10 He fights his fights with words and thoughts. That’s rubbish.
ATTITUDE: 6/10 He heroically takes the kid under his wing when everyone else has given up. But what about those allegations…?
OUTRAGEOUSNESS: 4/10 Plays chicken with a big truck! But that’s it, really. Even the accident that disfigured him sounds kinda crap.
BODY COUNT: 0 in 115 minutes. Rubbish. 0/10
MEL’S SCORE: A generous 13/50