In Home Viewings: "Get the Gringo"

After stealing a sizeable amount of money from Frank (Peter Stromare), a notorious gangster, Driver (Mel Gibson) and his soon-to-be-deceased partner make a mad dash for the Mexican border, only to be apprehended by the Federales. The crooked cops take the money and ship Driver off to a prison unlike anything he’s ever encountered in the States. Instead of cells and guards, the prison, known as El Pueblito, is essentially a third world bazar run by the inmates, a place where a man can buy anything he wants except freedom. While attempting to gain his bearings and keep himself alive, Driver becomes fast friends with Kid (Kevin Hernandez), a child with an odd connection to El Pueblito’s unofficial leader Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). With tension running high and members of both Frank’s crew and the prison’s gang closing in on him, Driver makes a play to save not only his own life but also the life of Kid.

Produced on a decent sized budget ($20 million), Get the Gringo wound up being passed over almost entirely by most theater chains after Gibson’s most recent meltdown cut its legs out from under  it. That’s somewhat of a shame because in all honesty, this film is pretty stinking good and much better than I expected. It’s a blend of hard, stylized action and violence highlighted by an air of dark comedy that suits the storyline. First time director Adrian Grunberg sets the stage like a seasoned professional and manages to take a set of very serious subjects and infuse them with a genuine sense of fun that caught me off guard. He keeps everything simple and contained, a strong choice given that this film could have spun out of control into the realm of utter absurdity if not watched closely. Tone wise, Gringo resembled 2001’s The Mexican a bit but whereas that film floundered, the atmosphere works well here. The script (written by Grunberg and Gibson) plays to the strength of the setting which is pretty interesting in and of itself (even if it does resemble the foreign jail in Prison Break). Moreover, Driver is written in such a way as to seem like a real guy. Of course he gets away with some outrageous things that could only happen in a movie but rather than endowing him with Jack Bauer-like abilities, Driver is set up to be a normal-ish guy, a grizzled, veteran criminal who thinks on his feet out of necessity. I thought that difference was important as it puts Gibson in his element and allows him a level of comfort that I don’t think he’s had on the big screen in many, many years.

I feel like every review I’ll ever write about a Mel Gibson film will feature a sentence similar to the one I’m about to type but here goes. Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s personal life, the man knows how to act. His previous two films, Edge of Darkness and The Beaver, were both mediocre (at best) but both put Gibson on display as a reminder of what a force he truly can be. In each of those films, however, I got the impression that Gibson was trying too hard; trying to make the world forget his drunken rants, trying to reestablish his career, and trying to prove to himself that he still had something to give. Gringo, on the other hand, works because Gibson seems to be completely comfortable in his role. Driver is smart mouthed, quick thinking, and even keel, a mix that has worked wonderfully for Gibson in the past and one that he settles into again from the outset. There’s an edge of cool to Driver that makes him a charismatic personality despite his numerous flaws and keeps the viewer locked in. It isn’t so much that you root for Driver; it’s that he’s so interesting and unpredictable that you just want to see what will happen next. I can’t remember the last time Gibson was this good and this focused but I think it’s safe to say that Driver holds up well against most of his best performances. Gringo isn’t perfect but Gibson gives it life when it begins to drag and his presence alone makes this a solid, enjoyable experience.