"Mel Gibson let loose in a Mexican prison. Now that I'd pay to see..."
Given Mel Gibson's somewhat controversial personal life, it appears filmmakers are weary of taking on the two-time Oscar winner. However Adrian Grunberg has taken a punt on Gibson, in a bet that has certainly paid off - in the hugely enjoyable action thriller How I Spent My Summer Vacation.
Originally titled Get the Gringo (how much better is that?!), Gibson plays a hapless criminal, on the run from the police following a robbery when disguised as a clown. Chased for miles, eventually Gibson - referred to as either 'Gringo' or 'Driver', crosses over the Mexican border only to crash his car and find himself caught by the law enforcement.
Due to being in Mexico when caught, Driver is sent to a notorious and tough prison-cum-community named El Pueblito, where convicts and families live together. As the only American, he must be cautious and keep to himself to stay alive. However, when befriending a nine-year-old (Kevin Hernandez) and falling for his mother (Dolores Heredia) Gibson learns that El Pueblito has more than meets the eye, as he vows to protect his new friends from the powerful prison director Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) who has his eyes on the youngster’s liver - as a transplant operation beckons given their rare matching blood type.
As Gibson's quirky voice-over comes into play right from the start we are instantly left in no doubt as to how this film will play out, as he proves to be a cool, merciless criminal that has jumped straight out of a Tarantino picture. The opening hour is immensely enjoyable as Gibson settles into life at El Pueblito, as the film mostly takes place in just the one set. However as the plot thickens and the story progresses, it does become somewhat ridiculous, and when Gibson makes allies in his young friend and mother, the film loses its brilliantly devised one man against many plot line which had been so captivating.
Grunberg's mysterious approach to the characters is also important, as we know so little about our protagonist. He's without a name or identity and his background is mostly unexplained. This leads to us feeling almost as the police officers and his inmates do, as we struggle to work out exactly who he is. Such a sentiment is also extended to his friends merely named, "kid" and "kid’s mother".
However a lack of information or background knowledge proves futile, as the picture is packed full of action from start to finish, and despite it's fatuousness in parts, is great fun. It is over-the-top and surreal occasionally, but this suits the nature of the film, as it almost needs to revel within its own absurdity to justify itself - rather than pretending to be anything it's not.
Gibson epitomises such a sentiment and, despite his somewhat inexcusable personal shenanigans, you just can't fault him as an action hero. To get along with the film you have to believe in your leading star and root for his safety and he always earns that. He also has a mad, unpredictable streak to his persona which makes his part seem entirely plausible.
How I Spent My Summer Vacation is a brilliantly compelling action thriller that, despite its shortcomings, keeps you entertained and on the edge of your seat throughout, as you attempt to piece together Driver's history and how he has got into his current predicament. I tell you what would have been more enjoyable though - had this film been a documentary. Mel Gibson let loose in a Mexican prison. Now that I'd pay to see.