Get the Gringo may be the gamiest south-of-the-border film excursion since Sam Peckinpah went rummaging around Mexico for Alfredo Garcia’s head.
An odd project in every respect; not least for the fact that it will bypass theatrical release in the U.S. to go the VOD route on DirectTV beginning May 1 this maverick Icon production is almost invigorating in its disreputability; it’s both cheesy and striking, corny and bold, dismissible and yet strangely appealing for its singularity. After the disappointment of Edge of Darkness and the complete bust of The Beaver in the wake of waves of bad personal publicity, the box-office appeal of star, co-producer and co-writer Mel Gibson is obviously highly questionable, and the grungy prison squalor of this violent semi-comic crime story will be an additional turnoff to many. Still, the film is shot through with a number of interesting currents and much imaginative action, making it worth a look for the curious as well as for hardcore Gibson fans of old, wherever they may be. The film already has opened theatrically in a few international markets, including Israel!!, Russia and Greece.
Debuting director Adrian Grunberg was assistant director on Gibson’s Apocalypto and second unit director on Edge of Darkness, and while he might not have a firm hand on the film’s sometimes wobbly tone, he definitely has a feel for the kind of gritty violence that’s most important to this story of a American professional criminal who lands in the most notorious prison in Mexico.
Right off the bat, in a wild, stops-out car chase in which the existentially named Driver (Gibson), dressed in clownface and loaded with cash, leads some U.S. agents in a mad dash across the desert toward Mexico, the story’s roots in the fertile ground of late ’60s/early ’70s action genre fare is plainly evident. Driver floors it alongside the metal fence stretched along the border until, in desperation, he crashes through it. Initially disposed to handing the gringo back to his pursuers, the Mexican cops take one look at his stash and decide they’ll keep the guy after all and send him to “El Pueblito.”
Gibson’s admittedly tarnished allure notwithstanding, El Pueblito is arguably the star of Get the Gringo. Resourcefully re-created by production designer Bernardo Trujillo in a shut-down penitentiary in Veracruz, El Pueblito was a teeming cesspool in Tijuana designed for 2,000 prisoners that, at the time of its closing in 2002, held three times that many. As pungently shown here, it’s a city unto itself, where inmates not only circulate freely in a bazaar worthy of ancient Timbuktu, where anything from drugs, sex and guns to toys, food and soft drinks is available. With so many people crammed in, it’s a human petri dish.
As an obvious Yanqui among Mexican’s society’s detritus, Driver would seem unlikely to last long. But he keeps his head down long enough to get the lay of the land and shortly befriends a tough 10-year-old kid (Kevin Hernandez) who’s stuck there with his mom (Dolores Heredia) and is determined to take revenge on the man who killed his father. Driver, it turns out, had major father issues of his own but for now must navigate through the prison’s feudal-style hierarchy and strategize a way out of hell.
The beastliness of this Midnight Express world is meant to be lightened by the whimsically philosophical voice-over observations from Driver that frequently litter the soundtrack. Grunberg whose Argentinian parents raised him in Spain and who now lives in Mexico occasionally attempts to match the quasi-sardonic narration with left-field comic moments that seem to spring from nowhere, resulting in sporadic levity that adds flavor from time to time but is far too inconsistent and imprecise to lift the film to a Leone, Tarantino or Coen brothers realm of violence shot through with black humor.
There’s also a bizarre central plot component of a liver transplant involving the kid and the prison’s insidious kingpin Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), the frenzied culmination of which is so insane that it cries out for the sort of slapstick handling that lies well beyond the director’s skill set at this point.
Still, any number of other scenes, which mostly involve many characters and innumerable extras in chaotic, complicated settings, are pulled off with vigor and a solid feel for what counts visually. As in so many of the straight-ahead, modestly budgeted, brass-tacks action films of 40 years ago, there are no visual pretentions or fancy-schmantzy effects here, just rational judgment applied to how to get a scene done as efficiently and effectively as possible.
With the government about to move in to shut down the beyond-the-pale prison and Javi desperate to get his liver transplant before it’s too late, Driver finally has his ducks set up to try to help the kid and effect retribution on those who have it coming (as part of his scheme, he amusingly disarms some big shots over the phone by pretending to be one of Hollywood’s most venerable stars). As the resolution takes shape, Driver emerges as yet another variation on Gibson’s preferred sort of hero: a deeply flawed man able to at least partially redeem himself by doing a good and noble deed for someone else.
Gibson still has all the energy, impulsive gear-shifting ability and growly vocal command to anchor a muscular film such as this; he co-wrote it for himself, after all, and he certainly knows by now what he does best. Hernandez is entirely credible as a tough little customer with real guts, and all the actors playing bad guys seize their opportunities with relish.
The widescreen cinematography by Belgian DP Benoit Debie, who shot Irreversible and Enter the Void for Gaspar Noe, is deliciously grubby. Brisk but not overdone editing brings the film in at a very tight 95 minutes, and Mexican music is both joked about and made use of.