An agreeably fast and loose throwback to 90s action flicks, Get the Gringo is a welcome return to antihero form for Mel Gibson after atypical roles in Edge of Darkness and The Beaver.
Unfortunately, the star’s off-the-screen action (including, most recently, an incident with writer Joe Eszterhas) seems to have soured distributors on the film, which was released direct-to-VOD (Video on Demand) in the US but bows theatrically here in the Czech Republic.
Get the Gringo was directed by Adrian Grunberg, Gibson’s 1st AD on Apocalypto; the finished product is more than a little shaky, as you might expect from a first-time director. But what Grunberg lacks in storytelling he makes up for with a genuine feel for the location: El Pueblito, a sprawling open-space Mexican prison the size of a small city. The film is so grimy you may need a shower after watching it.
Originally titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Gringo stars Gibson as an unnamed man (credited only as ‘Driver’, though this is miles away from last year’s Drive) first seen wearing a clown mask and barreling down the desert with bags of money in his back seat and cops hot on his trail. When he crashes through the US-Mexican border, Mexican police decide to detain him after spotting the cash.
Welcome to El Pueblito, where our hero is imprisoned on trumped up charges while the Mexican cops spend his hard-stolen cash. It’s a prison unlike any other, a huge shanty town crossed with a garbage dump where convicts carry handguns, rent living quarters, live with family members who are free to come and go, and generally enjoy a free existence with the one stipulation that they cannot leave the prison walls.
El Pueblito is not run by the police, but instead by convict Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who has the money to control the cops and his fellow prisoners. Javi is keeping an eye out for a young boy (Kevin Hernandez) and his mother (Dolores Heredia), for reasons the Gibson character is determined to discover for leverage.
In style and tone, Get the Gringo has a lot in common with Brian Helgeland’s underrated Payback, including the plot device of the main character attempting to retrieve his ill-gotten gains. But Gibson’s character – perhaps in light of his tarnished off-screen persona – is nowhere near as despicable as Payback’s Porter (though he ain’t exactly nice, either).
But this is, most likely, Gibson’s best role since that film; the actor chews up the screen while manipulating his way around the prison, and only some comedic narration (a nod to the film’s original title) and an overly-pat ending ring false. Familiar faces, including Peter Stormare, Bob Gunton, and Peter Gerety, show up in supporting roles.
But the real star of the show is El Pueblito, which was based on a real prison (closed in 2002) and perfectly recreated by Grunberg and his crew. Gritty and vibrant, the set is a living, breathing organism, and the perfect stage for the majority of the film’s action.