Now this is how you make a proper action-thriller! Get the Gringo (a.k.a. How I Spent My Summer Vacation) is one hell of a film; a stripped-down, gritty actioner reminiscent of the kind of dark, no-nonsense thrillers we saw back in the '70s and '80s. With so many glossy, CGI-laden blockbusters hitting screens these days, it's invigorating to see Mel Gibson - who grows more badass with each passing year - doing what he does best in his first true action-thriller since 1998's Payback. Gibson may be controversial, but those who are open-minded enough to watch Get the Gringo will be rewarded with a visceral, lively motion picture featuring Gibson back at the top of his game.
After pulling off a heist and stealing millions of dollars, American career criminal Driver (Gibson) is arrested south of the border by corrupt Mexican cops. Refusing to reveal his identity, Driver is tossed into the infamous El Pueblito; a community-like prison in which the inmates deal drugs, set up businesses and are generally free to carry on as they please. Driver soon begins to suss out his surroundings, realising that powerful kingpin Javi (Cacho) essentially rules El Pueblito from the inside. As he learns the ropes of the inmate lifestyle, Driver befriends a young boy (Hernandez) and his mother (Heredia). Driver finds renewed purpose when he learns that Javi wishes to use the kid as an organ donor, and subsequently begins scheming to bring down the kingpin, stage an escape, and retrieve his lost loot.
El Pueblito was actually a real Tijuana prison that was shut down a few years ago, and it scarcely resembled a correctional institute since more crimes were committed inside than out. It's the perfect setting for an action-thriller, and Gibson's gruff screen persona is an ideal fit for the criminal community which thrived from within the prison's walls. Extensive research about El Pueblito was undertaken (former inmates were even interviewed about their experiences), and thus the script (by Gibson, Stacy Perskie and director Adrian Grunberg) is drenched with authenticity, allowing the hellhole to feel like a central character itself. Get the Gringo is astonishingly ballsy, as well - Driver gives a few cigarettes to the kid, and there's even a prison shootout which results in the deaths of several bystanders. How often do you see that type of stuff in mainstream-friendly blockbusters? Admittedly, Get the Gringo lacks character detail since not much is revealed about who Driver is, but we don't need to know anything about the man. We get slight hints here and there about Driver's past, but the point is that there isn't much to him. Thus, instead of armchair psychology, we're given a pared-down film without any fat on its bones.
Gibson's Driver is very much cut from the vintage anti-hero mould, so director Adrien Grunberg's approach is somewhat vintage as well - it's spiritually similar to films directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and John Frankenheimer. This is Grunberg's first feature film, but he has worked as an assistant director for the likes of Peter Weir, Oliver Stone, Tony Scott and even Gibson himself, which equipped him with the experience to craft impressive set-pieces. Grunberg's approach lacks visual pretensions and fancy effects - the filmmaker just applied sensible judgement in order to shoot each scene in a comprehensible and effective manner. Furthermore, the El Pueblito setting is thick in atmosphere and flavour. Filmed in a real rundown prison, Get the Gringo is grimy and gritty; there's no Hollywood gloss here. Also, Get the Gringo is definitely not a PG-13 fare - this is a hard R laced with profanity and graphic violence. It's awesome.
With Mel Gibson adopting his trademark persona of slightly unhinged, wisecracking badass, Get the Gringo essentially feels like an unofficial sequel to Payback. Gibson showed he can be sincere and tender with 2011's The Beaver, so he earned himself space to have a little fun here. The role of Driver is a perfect match for Gibson, very much tailored to the star's talents. Driver is definitely a bad guy, but he's a villain in a sea of villains, and Gibson's cool, brains and charm makes him an anti-hero worth rooting for. Older action heroes like Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and Liam Neeson fit roles like this far better than younger actors ever could, as they afford a level of world-weariness and experience that's just not believable in actors like Taylor Lautner. Meanwhile, Gibson has strong chemistry with Kevin Fernandez as the kid. The rest of the cast is just as terrific; Peter Stormare, Daniel Giménez Cacho and Dolores Heredia all provide solid support in their respective roles.
Get the Gringo may seem like a low-rent B-movie, but Mel Gibson and Adrian Grunberg executed it with A-grade proficiency. It even contains a few nice off-the-wall touches, including a scene in which Gibson does a hilarious Clint Eastwood impression. Running at a hair under 90 minutes, this is a wonderfully brisk action-thriller worth watching with a case of cervezas. Mel, it's terrific to see you back.