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MOVIES : Mel--The Man With Two Faces : He's done cops, romantic heroes, lone avengers and Hamlet, but like the rest of Hollywood, Mel Gibson wanted a crack at directing movies. Just don't expect a lot of action in this rookie outing

August 15, 1993|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

During the Cannes Film Festival in May, I was invited to take a side trip into the hills above the French Riviera resort city, to a rented villa where Mel Gibson had been living while his latest movie, "The Man Without a Face," was being edited at La Victorine Studios in nearby Nice.

It was an unusual invitation for an unusual occasion. "The Man Without a Face" is Gibson's first film as a director, and the word passed along was that he would show some footage of the rough assemblage and talk about it.

As it turned out, there was no film to show. Gibson had to ship it ahead to London, where the sound mix was being done, and his demeanor was that of someone who'd just sent his kid off to camp for the first time. More to the point, it was a kid he wasn't sure anyone would like.

"I'm really close to the film, I've had it sitting there in front of me for six months, cutting it, fooling with it," he said, running a hand nervously through his hair. "I'm so close to it I don't know if it's good or not. I think it is."

Without the film to show, Gibson gamely talked his way through the plot, a somber tale about a troubled adolescent boy and his relationship with a deformed man in a small village in coastal Maine. The boy is suffering self-esteem problems and trying to overcome them by making it into the prep school that his deceased father had attended. The deformed man, whom Gibson plays, is a former prep school teacher whose face was disfigured by fire and his reputation sullied by rumors of child molestation. As he begins tutoring the boy, tongues begin to wag.

Not exactly what comes to mind when we think of a "Mel Gibson movie."

"No, no, it's not," he said, in a near whisper. "But it's a story I really like."

Lighter subjects came up that day: the craziness of Cannes, where Gibson had been heralded a decade earlier for "The Year of Living Dangerously"; the London opening of Planet Hollywood, which he had just attended; the upcoming wave of summer action movies, which he was sitting out. But whenever the conversation reverted to his new film, the worried look returned to Gibson's face, his resonant voice dropped another octave and his hand went back to noogying his own scalp.

"It's a good story, man, that's all it's got going for it," he said. "There's no action, nobody gets shot in it. It's a very languid film, it feels very European to me."

It probably feels pretty European to Warner Bros. executives too. The studio's relationship with Gibson goes all the way back to "The Road Warrior" in 1981, and they have since made a fortune on the "Lethal Weapon" series. But now, the series' ruggedly handsome cop--the wildly physical, sexually dynamic, irresistibly impetuous Martin Riggs--is playing an introspective, small-town pariah with a seared face, and it won't be an easy sell.

"I think they were sort of wondering what's this all about?," Gibson said. "It's not like 'Lethal Weapon' or 'The Demolition Man' where you can guarantee it will do a certain amount of business. This is a risk."


Two and a half months later, a much more relaxed Gibson is sitting on a couch in his cluttered, folksy office at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, talking about "The Man Without a Face" in the past tense. It's late July and the film isn't due to open until Aug. 25, but that's OK.

Since Cannes, the movie has been through three research screenings, cut, fine-tuned and spit-shined. He doesn't have a lot of faith in research screenings but the approval ratings he got--he says more than 90% of the respondents said they'd recommend it to friends--were about the same as those for "Lethal Weapon" and . . . "Hey, it's better than getting crappy scores."

Gibson, in casual shirt, faded Levis and cowboy boots, sits on the edge of the couch trying to fan a deck of playing cards from one hand to the other, a gambler's legerdemain that he will have to do perfectly for the camera when his next film, "Maverick," goes into production later this month in Arizona.

Sometimes the cards all make it from one hand to the other; sometimes, they go flying. Either way, they are recycled and the fanning continues, with time out for an occasional cigarette, for the next two hours.

So, where is all that insecurity about "Man Without a Face?"

"I'm still a little insecure about it," he says. "You always hear directors say that it's like sending your baby out there to be dumped on or praised, and that's exactly how it feels. But I think it's going to be OK."

By OK he means neither he nor Warner Bros. will be embarrassed by his directorial debut. He has had enough feedback now to know that he has made a sincere, tight drama that will earn respectful reviews, even if it doesn't post "Lethal Weapon"-size box office grosses. Gibson says he deferred his acting salary, took a minimum fee for directing and brought the film in for about $12 million.

The question remains, why do it at all?

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