It might be tough to remember, but back before Mel Gibson was best known for being a rage-spewing misogynist and anti-semite, he was actually a really successful action star. Now, fifteen years after the last Lethal Weapon and more than twenty five years after the last Mad Max, Gibson dusts off his tough-as-nails, devil-may-care persona for Get the Gringo (also titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation), a low-rent, self-funded thriller set in a gang-controlled Mexican prison. The extent to which one enjoys the film will probably have a lot to do with how readily one can forgive the actor his sins – or at least separate them from the character he plays. But those who can will find plenty to appreciate in this simple yet effective crime picture with a charismatic performance at its centre.
When we first meet our protagonist, known throughout the film only as “Gringo”, he’s engaged in a high speed pursuit with American law enforcement on his way to the Mexican border. He wins the race, but it’s not much of a victory, as he’s immediately snapped up by corrupt Mexican police officers who steal his loot – $2 million in cash – and toss him unceremoniously into El Pueblito, a cross between the slammer and “the world’s shittiest mall.”
While it’s blatantly obvious that Gringo is intended as a career reviver for Gibson, there’s also no denying that he’s the movie’s greatest asset. Alternating between cocky smirks and glares of intensity, the actor, although well into his fifties and haggard by public disgrace, has lost none of the charisma, confidence or volatility that made Martin Riggs’ and Mad Max Rockatansky two of the greatest anti-heroes in all of action cinema. Gringo’s surrogate father-son relationship with a ten-year old inmate (played by talented young actor Kevin Hernandez; The Sitter) offers the character his chance at redemption – and escape. Of course, it’ll take a few dozen dead bodies to get there, but what’s a little bloodshed amongst killers?
The film’s other big strength is its setting. Less a prison and more of a miniature city, El Pueblito – allegedly based on a real life Mexican goal that had to be shut down – proves more fascinating than any of the film’s characters; a place where a burrito stand operates across from a heroin den, and inmates have sex with their spouses in crudely pitched tents in the middle of a public square. The filth doesn’t quite mask the hideously cheap look of the cinematography, unfortunately, nor the fake CGI blood that distracts in the otherwise amusingly over-the-top slow-motion shootouts. First time director Adrian Grunberg – previously the 1st A.D. on Gibson’s Apocalypto – is hindered less by a lack of talent than he is an apparent lack of money. Still, he makes do with what he has. And personal foibles aside, his leading man is worth his weight in gold.