Mel Gibson is definitely one of those public figures who is going to have an * permanently affixed to his career from now until the end of time.
While I don’t have time to go into the actor’s relationship with alcohol abuse, religious fanaticism and outright bigotry, suffice it to say that these transgressions have dogged his otherwise pretty impressive career in the movie business.
Hell, even with all these controversies in mind, I still teared up watching Hacksaw Ridge back in 2016, which is a testament to Gibson’s talent behind the camera (in addition to his acting chops in front of it).
While Bird on a Wire (1990) isn’t as fondly remember as some of Gibson’s other projects (Braveheart, Lethal Weapon, Mad Max), it’s still a great showcase for the actor’s natural charisma, so much so that it will make you briefly forget that he once called a female cop “sugar tits.”
The plot of Bird on a Wire revolves around Rick Jarmin (Gibson), an FBI informant who is trying to adjust to life in the witness protection program after testifying against some corrupt DEA agents (Bill Duke and David Carradine).
But when those criminals finally track Rick down, they immediately swear revenge and seek to put him in the ground.
This situation is made even more complicated when Rick randomly runs into his ex-fiancé Marianne (Goldie Hawn), who previously thought that her old flame had died in a plane crash.
From there, Bird on a Wire turns into a chase movie, where Gibson and Hawn must race across the north-eastern United States to meet up with an old FBI handler who can provide the pair with some protection.
And in that respect, the film mostly succeeds, due in large part to the natural chemistry between the two leads.
Gibson and Hawn really sell you on the idea that they are old lovers reuniting under extreme circumstances, without getting bogged down in the endless bickering that can sink other on-screen relationships.
This core dynamic between the pair is also blended seamlessly into the film’s many action sequences, where each daredevil stunt is punctuated by a zingy one-liner or well-timed physical gag.
In fact, Bird on a Wire is chock full of laugh-out-loud jokes even when the pace slows down, which is a testament to how well Gibson and Hawn play off of each other.
The film also gives Gibson some room to show off his range as an actor, since the plot requires him to adopt a variety of characters as he backtracks through his previous identities in the witness protection program.
Admittedly, the part of the movie where Gibson has to briefly slip back into his life as a gay hairdresser is a little cringey (even attracting the ire of GLAAD), but he still commits to the bit and makes it convincing.
However, some of the writing surrounding Gibson’s character is a little suspect.
While Rick Jarmin is presented as a cinematic everyman, he actually adopts the characteristics of a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) who is inexplicably good at everything.
Throughout the course of the movie, Rick proves himself to be somewhat of a savant, who is naturally gifted at: hairdressing, automotive repair, carpentry, motorcycle riding, sharp shooting, piloting airplanes and triggering female orgasms.
Plus, all the peripheral characters never really comment on Rick’s genius-level intellect throughout the movie’s runtime, which only draws attention to this disconnect between the writing and the filmmaker’s intent.
That being said, Hawn’s character is treated far worse by the screenwriters, since she spends most of the movie screaming her lungs out and being useless.
Her performance actually reminded me a lot of Kate Capshaw from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; a blond damsel who only exists to be in distress and get bailed out by the rugged male hero.
What’s especially disappointing is that the writers set her up as a smart and gutsy lawyer at the beginning of the movie, and I assumed that that quality was going to come in handy at some point later in the film.
But as soon as she meets up with Gibson, Hawn’s character quickly devolves into a brainless idiot, who never rises to the challenge or uses her intellect to get one up on the bad guys.
It’s not like I expected her to turn into Lisbeth Salander or something, but some kind of tangible character arc would have been welcome.
In fact, a great template for this character already existed in Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), where Kathleen Turner’s sheltered city slicker successfully adapts to life as an adventurer in the Columbian rainforest.
But I guess the screenwriters of Bird on a Wire never saw that film, since Hawn’s character continues to wear her high heels even after being chased by gun wielding thugs for several days.
Despite all this shoddy writing, Gibson and Hawn still manage to keep the film afloat through their natural chemistry alone, encouraging the audience to keep watching to see if their characters successfully reconcile in the end.
Coupled with director John Badham’s firm grasp of how to balance action and comedy, Bird on a Wire offers a fun escape for roughly two hours, even if it kind of falls apart in the third act.
But maybe this is the best kind of movie to sum up Gibson’s career, more so than the projects that have resulted in Oscar wins or major box office returns.
After all, Bird on a Wire is fun, charming, and easy on the eyes, even though it does harbor some major character flaws right beneath the surface.
To me, that seems to be an accurate summation of Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood at this point, even though the final chapters of his controversial career have yet to be written.
So while Bird on a Wire is far from perfect, it’s probably the perfect Mel Gibson movie, in the sense that you actively enjoy it against your better judgement.
Corner store companion:
Chef Boyardee ravioli (because you enjoy it, even though it contains some problematic ingredients)
-Release date: May 18, 1990
-Budget: $20 million (estimated)
-Box office: $70,978,012 (US), $138,697,012 (worldwide)
-The title from this movie is taken from a 1969 Leonard Cohen song “Bird on the Wire.” A cover version of this single, composed by The Neville Brothers, was included on the film’s official soundtrack.
-The second unit director of Bird on a Wire was none other than Rob Cohen, who would go on to spearhead major action blockbusters like xXx (2002) and The Fast and the Furious (2001) years later.
-According to IMDB, the gigantic zoo exhibit featured in the climax of Bird on a Wire was the largest studio set ever built in Vancouver at the time. Much of the movie was shot in and around the British Columbia city.
-Before directing Bird on a Wire, John Badham is probably best known for helming Hollywood hits like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Short Circuit (1986).
-The end credits for this film scroll up instead of down for some reason.
-Musical highlight: “Aquarius” by The 5th Dimension (this 90s synth cover of the famous medley by The 5th Dimension was arranged by composer Hans Zimmer and plays at the very beginning of the film).