Get the Gringo

June 2, 2012
Screen shot 2012-06-23 at 4.26.30 PM

South of the border, down Mexico way. We’ve been here before, but never in the company of Mel Gibson, working to restore a reputation that has taken a dive in recent years. There have been slight problems with alcohol, domestic violence, and anti-Semitic pronouncements delivered to officers of the law. “Sick to his empty core with Jew-hatred” was the verdict of the late Christopher Hitchens.

Only a month ago the screenwriter, Joe Eszterhaz, renewed the accusations of anti-Semitism, after Gibson turned down a script based on the Maccabeen uprisings that re-established the Jewish religion in Jerusalem. Mad Mel rejected the charges, but he does have form. It’s always a bad sign when an actor becomes better known for his off-screen antics than for achievements in front of the camera.

Get the Gringo suggests that it is not just the Jews that might have an issue with Mel. The Mexicans now have ample grounds to complain about objectionable stereotypes, including the familiar gallery of hot, sweaty, ultra-violent gangsters who talk like Speedy Gonzalez; the corrupt cops; and the down-at-heel lawyer trying to squeeze a buck out of the prisoners. Alas, in Mexico, it’s all too true! Drugs, kidnappings, murders and massacres have cast such a pall over this country that Hollywood couldn’t dream up a crazier scenario.

Get the Gringo is a shameless romp, with Gibson cast as an American career criminal who finds himself on the wrong side of the border after a car chase gone wrong. He is thrown into a Mexican prison organised along feudal lines, where the top gangster, Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho), enjoys absolute control over the rest of the inmates and the prison authorities. The only way to survive, needless to say, is to be meaner and trickier than everyone else.

Gibson’s character is called “Driver” in the press release, but he spends the entire film giving false names. In this paranoid environment, his guide is the Kid (Kevin Hernandez), a nine year-old boy who conveniently speaks perfect English. This is another stock character, familiar from umpteen films, although the motif of the little child that leads is as old as literature itself.

The twist is that this boy is the same rare blood group as Javi, who sees him as a potential donor for a liver transplant. Javi’s debauched lifestyle has almost used up the liver he previously took from the Kid’s father. That earlier operation rendered the boy fatherless and his mother (Dolores Heredia) the plaything of the criminal kingpins.

Driver may be a hardened crim, but you won’t be surprised to learn he also has a powerful sense of loyalty and justice. His efforts to rescue the Kid and his mother from the evil fate that awaits them are even stronger than his desire to save his own skin.

This may seem unlikely, but Hollywood abounds in such noble, self-sacrificing criminals, so it would be churlish to complain. One cannot judge a movie such as Get the Gringo in terms of plausibility. What we are looking for is action, drama, humour, and that touch of je-ne-sais-quoi which can make something marvellous out of a mass of clichés. In this regard, Get the Gringo is much more successful than I had anticipated. Behind the B grade title lies a reasonably sophisticated movie.

The working title for the project was: How I Spent My Summer Vacation. Even the opening sequence in which Driver and his partner are being chased by the cops has a tongue-in-cheek element. Both are dressed as clowns, a rather extravagant disguise for a heist. This may be Mel’s way of acknowledging the image he currently enjoys in Hollywood.

The wise-cracking dialogue, written by Gibson himself, is relentless, but it moves along fluently. There are cute touches, as when Mel impersonates Clint Eastwood on the telephone. This is another moment when art envies life, because Eastwood is the consummate Hollywood professional, in both public and private spheres.

Gibson’s previous movies such as The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) had arthouse pretensions, but if there are any hidden profundities in Get the Gringo they are brilliantly concealed. The film is directed by Adrian Grunberg, who was assistant director on the relentlessly brutal Apocalypto, but it is a Mel Gibson project from start to finish. One of the curosities of this feature is that it has been released directly into the video-on-demand market in the United States, while getting a theatrical release in Australia and most other countries.

Get the Gringo is a self-conscious entertainment by an actor perfectly aware of genre in which he is working. It takes Gibson away from the religious themes that have brought him fame and notoreity, and recasts him as an action hero – a figure that invites less problematic identifications; for a Hollywood hero may kill any number of bad guys on screen just so long as he keeps his mouth shut when the movie is over.

Get the Gringo, USA, rated MA, 95 mins

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 02, 2012