Should Mel Gibson decide to follow any of his contemporaries into the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre, he might want to avoid any remakes of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The real-life comparisons would be too ripe to pass up.

This is a guy, after all, renowned for his conservative religiosity, but whose bouts of bad behavior might be charitably described as unspiritual: Upon being arrested on charges of drunken driving in 2006, just for instance, he subjected Malibu police to a violent, sexist and anti-Semitic rampage. He has been described as a Republican, but was blackballed by the Bush White House for making favorable comments about Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." He's an ultraorthodox Catholic who got divorced after 28 years of marriage and has a child with girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva ("I feel sorry for Tiger Woods," he told the London Daily Mail). He is a serious artist who's been lampooned on "South Park."

He is also loyal to friends and puts his money where his mouth is: When no company would insure the drug-troubled Robert Downey Jr. while he was trying to rebuild his career, Gibson paid Downey's insurance bond (for "The Singing Detective"). Despite having espoused a virulently homophobic point of view, he numbers among his best friends Jodie Foster (who is also directing Gibson in the upcoming "The Beaver"). To borrow from Kris Kristofferson, Gibson is a "walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." Gibson seems capable of rising from the dead.

"Mel Gibson is a major movie star, in spite of all the notoriety," said former Variety columnist Anne Thompson, who now writes about Hollywood for Indiewire. "Nobody's closing the door on Mel Gibson. What's interesting is: What did he choose as the vehicle to return as a movie star in front of the public? And it looks like he picked something inside the safety zone."

 

Lethal Gibson

That something, opening Friday, is "Edge of Darkness," in which Gibson has his first starring role since "Signs" (2002). It is, shall we say, well inside his wheelhouse: The avenging angel, the lone wolf, the solitary force against evil, and a father driven to the outskirts of sanity by the murder of his child. Based on the BBC series of 1985 (of which Gibson is reportedly a big fan), "Edge of Darkness" reflects the libertarian-anarchist-paranoiac POV that has informed so much of Gibson's work (from the end-of-the-world nightmare of "Mad Max" to the not-quite-lunacy of "Conspiracy Theory" to the political victimization of Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ").

After his daughter is shot down on his doorstep, homicide detective Thomas Craven discovers her secret life, terrorist connections and a government conspiracy. Also starring are Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic and Ray Winstone as a CIA agent assigned to cover up the assassination (Robert De Niro was originally cast, and walked off the set due to creative differences). As Craven, Gibson is playing a role around which other lethal Mel-ian characters echo.

"I won't be making any arrests," he says in the trailer. We get the picture.

If it sounds like "Ransom" meets "Payback," well that's exactly right. "Edge of Darkness" represents an opportunity for Gibson to do the things he does best as an actor - embodying the inexpressible rage of his audience toward powers perceived as omnipotent; combining suavity with unhinged emotion; treating bad guys the way a baby treats a diaper and enjoying every minute of it.

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What he did on 'Vacation'

If Gibson becomes predictable as an actor - and while such a thing may seem unforeseeable, he's no longer a juvenile, let's face it - it's as an off-camera filmmaker that he will likely remain completely wild. The project he's now shooting, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," is being directed by Adrian Grunberg (first assistant director on "Apocalypto" and "Edge of Darkness"), but is based on a Gibson script about a career criminal who survives a tough Mexican prison with the help of a 9-year-old boy. (More than 200 prisoners were relocated from a Mexican prison this month, despite their relatives' protests, to make room for the filmmaking. A spokesman for Gibson denied that the actor had asked for prisoners to be moved.) Gibson is also said to be planning an as-yet-unnamed Viking movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which - echoing the Aramaic of "Passion" and the Mayan of "Apocalypto" - he has said he'd like to be delivered in German-inflected early English. ("I want a Viking to scare you," he said by way of explanation.) But the Mel Gibson who's brought unpredictability to everything from "Conspiracy Theory," "Maverick" and all the "Lethal" weaponry - as well as "Father's Day" (in which he did a cameo as a body piercer) and the lead poultry in "Chicken Run" - will not be disappearing anytime soon.

In "The Beaver," he is said to be playing a troubled toy company owner who, after discovering the glove puppet of the title, begins relating to it as if it were another person. Somehow, it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch for Gibson.

 

 

THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO MEL'S MOVIES, TOO

Reflecting his Janus-like persona, the films of Mel Gibson fall into two camps - the stunningly successful and the lackluster. There are few real bombs, just strange choices and revealing misfires.

 

MEL-LIFLUOUS

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MAD MAX (1979) - As an Australian import, Gibson brought magnetism and inner rage to George Miller's hyper-violent tale about a cop pursuing the post-apocalypto bike gang that murdered his family. The prototype for Gibson as avenging angel.

LETHAL WEAPON (1987) - Funny, frenetic and blessed with the chemical kick of Gibson and Danny Glover, this was pure Richard Donner-esque hoopla with heart. Who knew it would become as tiresome a franchise as McDonald's?

HAMLET (1990) - They all laughed, but Gibson's tortured Dane, a la Franco Zeffirelli, has a special place in the annals of Shakespearean film treatments, a robust hero brought low by events beyond his control. Conspiracy theory (see "Conspiracy Theory") is never far from Gibson's heart, and that's the prism by which he saw Hamlet.

BRAVEHEART (1995) - Gibson's second directorial effort (following "The Man Without a Face"), this rousing, romantic, politically incendiary tale of Scots rebel William Wallace won him a directing Oscar. And despite the academy's weakness for actors-turned-directors (Redford, Costner, Eastwood, Beatty), it was well deserved.

CHICKEN RUN (2000) - Gibson can be reflexively hilarious, and he brought that quality to this Aardman ("Wallace & Gromit") production.

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APOCALYPTO (2006) - Epic, and a testament to Gibson's directorial gifts.

 

MEL-EVOLENT

THE PATRIOT (2000) - Not a good year for Gibson, who once again is slaughtering people for all the right reasons, but the whole exercise is too deliberately noble.

THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (2000) - As critic Michael Atkinson put it, a "monstrosity," and an unlikely project for Gibson, given German director Wim Wenders' jaundiced view of America.

WHAT WOMEN WANT (2000) - Just thinking about the pantyhose scene gives me chills.

WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002) - Gibson didn't direct this, but he certainly might have. A movie about the start of the Vietnam War, Randall Wallace's production is all honor and gallantry and free of retrospection, and therefore pretty useless.

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) - A seemingly stranger and stranger movie as time goes on, a deliberate provocation, an S&M catechism lesson and a demagogic use of the gospels. - JOHN ANDERSON