May 10, 2012
How I Spent my summer vacation
Director: Adrian Grunberg - Run time: 95 mins
Review by Bill Harrington
I doubt many stars have had such a fall from grace as Mel Gibson. From blue eyed idol with the melting smile beloved of millions of women, via lauded and Oscar winning director to booze-soaked pariah, thanks to his forthright views on women and religion that many have found unpalatable. The actor whose films were once guaranteed box office, even if they weren't actually any good (What Women Want, Lethal Weapon 4), now suffers the ignominy of his latest vehicle, How I Spent My Summer Vacation (or 'Get the Gringo' as the Americans know it), going straight to video on demand in the States. Perhaps being less sensitive to his peccadilloes than the Americans, quite a few markets around the world are giving the film a theatrical release, and yet one gets the feeling that, despite a few interesting aspects, perhaps the film has more of the straight to video quality about it.
For starters, the film is patently absurd. Lifelong criminal Driver (Mel Gibson) and his mortally wounded partner crash land over the Mexico border after outpacing the US police in a car laden with cash. He is picked up by the local police, who take great interest in the millions of dollars they find in his possession and promptly pocket it for themselves. Driver is deposited in El Pueblito prison, an astonishing enclosed village and microcosm of society where family life, socialising and sport are tolerated amidst the norms of drug abuse, prostitution and murder. Driver immediately uses his career criminal wits to make his life as comfortable as possible. When a 10 year old boy witnesses him stealing from fellow inmates, Driver buys his silence and the two enter into a partnership of mutual financial gain. The boy turns out to be of fundamental importance to the criminal baron at the top of the prison hierarchy however, and as Driver learns more about the reason for this, and plots his way to recovering the stolen money he was found with when picked up by the corrupt Mexican police, the sound of credibility being stretched agonisingly to breaking point and beyond can be heard all round the cinema.
This is a shame as the film works well in the early scenes. The setting is authentic - most of the film was shot at Mexico's Ignacio Allende prison, much to the consternation of the actual prisoners and their families according to news reports. The largely recognisable society in operation within the prison walls is fascinating to see. The prison has its own economy, its own housing system, its own restaurants and nightspots even. Beer and cigarettes are sold openly, heroin only slightly less so. While some prisoners are forced to sleep in the open air with nothing but sandy ground for a mattress, other prisoners are able to recreate home life, complete with smiling grandmothers and aunts dutifully preparing the family meals. The film presents this collision of normality and squalor really rather well.
Unfortunately once the the film goes over the top with contrived assassination scenes and liver transplant sub-plots, and Gibson's character morphs into a grenade catching super-soldier killing machine, it loses a bit of its dignity. It's action-packed without question and still entertains, but it's also inordinately silly.
Yet again I was struck by Mel Gibson's taste for gore. Since he was quartered in Braveheart, he seems to have developed a limitless appetite for splatter. Here the gouts of blood and exploding cowboys are a bit more cartoonish than anything seen in The Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, although a scene where two policemen are casually tortured by a couple of hapless goons takes the jaunty violent fun a bit too far. Indeed it seems symptomatic, along with Gibson's sardonic voice-over and some awful one-liners, of a film trying a bit too hard to be cool and appealing to a young audience Mel Gibson is aware he has fallen out of favour with. I fear this isn't the film to bring Mel back in from the cold, although I'll be checking UK box office figures with some interest next week to see if that is actually the case.