The distribution and reception to Mel Gibson’s latest starring role in How I Spent My Summer Vacation (aka Get the Gringo) is a real sign of just how far this former box office king has fallen.
The film played for barely a week in UK cinemas and went direct to DVD in the states. Even the inferior The Beaver got a proper cinema release despite the surrounding controversy. It’s almost impossible to view the man’s work now without his personal shenanigans in the back of your mind but taken on its own terms, How I Spent My Summer Vacation is a proper return to the amoral badass Gibson made his own in films like Payback and Mad Max.
Beginning with a full tilt police chase at the US-Mexican border after a bank robbery, the film is hard-boiled, grubby neo noir all the way. The opening scene fills you in perfectly on what kind of film you are about to watch with a Gibson voiceover and a snappily edited car crash followed by a professional ‘exchange’ between two law enforcement officers.
With his partner dead and his money taken by the corrupt police force he was apprehended by, Gibson’s character with no name (lots of fake ones and burned off fingertips) finds himself in ‘El Pueblito’ a prison full of wretched scum which is so much like a walled in village that it even has inmate’s families living there too. After getting himself established in the dog eat dog world of the prison, he befriends a kid (Kevin Hernandez) who is living on borrowed time thanks to his relationship with the kingpin of the facility who have connections to the corrupt police force. After bonding with the kid and his mother, our gringo ingratiates himself with the mob running the place and starts making moves to get out, get his money and maybe even save a child’s life in the process.
Gibson can play this kind of role in his sleep but here he seems more alive and less in a slumber than he has done for a while. Gibson’s character is a career criminal with a murky past but has the goofiness of Martin Riggs whilst also doling out beatings with ease. All thoughts of his angry phone calls and racist jibes disappeared as I was thankful to be watching the man at his best again. I may have felt slightly dirty afterwards but it’s that kind of film anyway.
The plot is layered and intricate in typical noir fashion but keeps you on your toes and isn’t difficult to work out exactly who is screwing over who at any one time. Director Adrian Grunberg is a seasoned second unit man but his film is brimming with such confidence and attitude that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been doing the auteur thing all along. From the opening right up until the explosive finale, How I Spent My Summer Vacation knows what it’s doing and does it really well.
There are a vast number of characters who come and go but all are given a memorable scene where they bounce off Gibson and Grunberg even has the time to stop midway for the best slow motion shootout for ages. Combined with authentic feeling production design where you can practically smell the prison and some great editing, the film is a minor triumph. Regardless of your opinion of the man himself Mel Gibson’s vacation south of the border is a trip worth taking.