A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 2, 2012.
With his heavy frown lines and air of burnt-out revulsion, the Mel Gibson of 2012 seems centuries rather than decades older than the supple, boyish leading man of The Year of Living Dangerously and Tequila Sunrise. Even his remaining fans might feel he needs to lighten up – and Get the Gringo suggests, rather surprisingly, that he agrees. Originally titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation, this wacky caper is something of a holiday for Gibson, who serves behind the scenes as co-writer and producer (the directorial credit goes to first-timer Adrian Grunberg, who was the assistant director on Gibson's Apocalypto). Needless to say, however, Gibson's idea of a larky good time won't be shared by everyone. The body count is high, the racism mild but constant, and the humour staunchly tasteless – even if some of the edgy one-liners sound like they were written by your embarrassing uncle.
Starring as a grizzled getaway driver who goes by the existential handle of “Driver,” Gibson makes his first appearance speeding down a dusty Texas road, with cops in hot pursuit and a fellow hoodlum in clown make-up coughing up blood in the back seat. Arrested just south of the border, Driver finds himself the sole Yankee inmate of El Pueblito, a notorious real-life Tijuana prison (closed in 2002) where the families of inmates were allowed to live on the grounds. Rendered visually as a frieze-like, congested backdrop, the prison yard is a chaotic blend of shanty town and marketplace: garbage and graffiti cover every inch of free space, stalls peddle everything from tacos to Jesus figurines, and mayhem seems ready to break out at any moment.
Driver's bad attitude doesn't win him many new friends, but his protective instincts are roused by a ten-year-old kid known as the Kid (Kevin Hernandez) who cadges cigarettes and tolerates his mentor's pragmatic advice (“Typically, if you want to kill someone instantaneously, you go for the central nervous system or the brain”). Their bond is taken to the next level when the Kid reveals the ghastly truth about his real father, who came to a sticky end when the ruthless gangster Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) needed an organ transplant. “He has my father's liver. I want to cut it out and bury it with my dad.” Staring grimly across the crowded yard, Driver resolves to make a child's dream come true.
That's where the fun of the film really begins – with the idea of El Pueblito as a sealed kingdom, indifferent to the laws of the wide world, where all kinds of bluffs and manoevures can be carried out. Get the Gringo is too uneven to be called a success, but it's a genuinely eccentric novelty item full of typical Gibsonian touches. The theme of surrogate father-son bonding harks back to his iconic role in Mad Max 2 as well as his directorial debut The Man Without A Face where he played a disfigured loner accused of paedophilia.
Besides being a personal project, this is an old-fashioned genre movie where connoisseurs should enjoy tracing all the influences and resemblances. In a few scenes Driver impersonates Clint Eastwood, another maverick actor-director noted for rugged individualist views and a complex relation to his hardboiled screen persona. The use of long lenses and the dusty-orange colour scheme suggest a greater debt to Sam Peckinpah and to Peckinpah's sometime collaborator Walter Hill – particularly in the slow-motion shoot-outs set to flamenco guitar licks, with combatants taking turns to fire on the run. Quentin Tarantino would be proud of some of the lurid plot twists, while a stand-out sight gag involving an umbrella, a couple of hand grenades and a join-the-dots puzzle is worthy of Takeshi Kitano, a past master of playing a tough guy who doubles as a clown. If Gibson is seeking role models at this late stage, he could do a lot worse.