I didn’t beat a path to see Mel Gibson and Jean-Francois Richet‘s Blood Father because it felt like too much of a rage-driven exploitation retread — a grizzled, tattooed dad with a criminal past protects an alienated, errant daughter from drug dealers. I figured it might be another Get The Gringo, which no one paid attention to. Yes, it managed an 88% Rotten Tomatoes rating when it opened on 8.12, but I still resisted. I figured at least some of the critics were giving Gibson a sympathy pass or paying tribute to the charismatic big-bucks hotshot he used to be.

Well, I was wrong. I finally watched Blood Father last night (it’s streaming on Amazon prior to the 10.11 Bluray debut), and damned if isn’t a highly efficient action-exploitation flick, like something Don Siegel might have made in his prime. It’s tight and well-layered, the writing is character-driven and flavorful and often amusing, the action is grounded and realistic (credit Richet, who directed those excellent, similarly grounded Mesrine flicks from ’08) and the performances deliver well above the usual for this kind of fare, especially in Gibson’s case.

It just works all around and never feels cheap or sloppy or self-mocking. It was clearly assembled by pros who were committed to making something smart and extra-punchy.

Some critic called it “a small gem…a good old-fashioned chase picture, thickened with pulp.” But that makes it sound like it’s mainly an adrenaline flick for the animals. Which it is to some extent, but Blood Father (which is based on a 2006 Peter Craig novel) is also a first-rate character study of a classic bad hombre (ex-con, rage monster, former alcoholic) trying to walk the straight and narrow as well as a mildly affecting father-daughter relationship thing.

Gibson’s John Link is a bearded tattoo artist living in a shitty trailer in what looks like the upper California desert. Erin Moriarty plays his daughter, a careless ne’er-do-well who’s hiding out after accidentally shooting her drug-dealer boyfriend (Diego Luna), which of course necessitates revenge from his gang members. Gibson doesn’t want any more trouble in his life, etc., but that determination goes right out the window after his daughter reaches out.

The final 60% of Blood Father is a crafty road-chase flick as Gibson taps old friends and contacts to try and find a way out of this bloody, white-knuckle mess.

Blood Father was shot during June and July of ’14, and then Lionsgate acquired the rights in December of that year. But then it disappeared for nearly a year and a half until it was shown at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. Why?

Here’s what I wrote about Gibson last summer, which I now realize was incorrect to some extent: “Even if the 60 year-old Gibson hadn’t torpedoed himself twice, first with those 2006 anti-Semitic rants and then with those screaming racist epithets, he’d still be past his prime today. It’s natural for big-name actors to experience a little mojo loss at this stage. The difference is that Gibson went off a cliff. Twice. Tell me how he can alter the crazy-loon thing. I don’t see how.

“Even if some forgiving producer or director was determined to resuscitate his acting career, what could Gibson be cast as? He can’t play romantic smoothies or refined cultivated types, not with those ’06 and ’10 imprints. He can’t be Richard Gere or Tom Hanks or Tommy Lee Jones. I could accept him as Jeff Bridges‘ old Texas Ranger in David Mackenzie‘s Hell or High Water, but he’s still got those negatives to contend with. I suppose Quentin Tarantino could cast him as an ornery grizzled sort (the kind of fellow Kurt Russell played in The Hateful Eight), but Gibson can never again sell the idea that he’s a man of trust, moderation and common sense. That pooch has been screwed and his prime potency period is over anyway.

“Gibson had a good 23 years as a top-dog, well-paid star in quality fare (1979’s Mad Max to ’02’s Signs). He peaked with ’95’s Braveheart, which he directed, starred in and won a Best Picture Oscar for, and then earned qualified respect for his direction of The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, at least for the chops if not for the content. His latest directed film, Hacksaw Ridge, will pop in November, and he might get a bounce out of that.

“But acting-wise there’s nothing he can do beyond low-rent exploitation fare and/or crude comedies. And is that really so bad? At least it’s a marketable brand. He can always continue to direct, and he’s rich, and alive and kicking as it were.”

The difference is that Venice Film Festival reviews of Hacksaw Ridge were very encouraging, which may signal the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of Gibson’s ethical exile from mainstream Hollywood players. And Blood Father is far from “low-rent” exploitation — it’s one of the best films of this type that I’ve seen this century.