Mad Mex

Get The Gringo ***1/2 (out of five)

Mel Gibson has been making independent movies for awhile now, through his own very independent production and distribution company Icon Films, bankrolled to a great degree through the astonishing success of The Passion of the Christ, which Gibson funded exclusively for thirty million dollars and which made well over fifteen times that. Like George Lucas with Star Wars, the incredible success of Gibson’s Christ has granted him an autonomy outside the Studio system, and Get the Gringo, his new, completely independent feature, co-produced by him through Icon, bears all the hallmarks of this freedom, without being anything like Christ or its follow up Apocalypto.

Written by Gibson with Adrian Grunberg and Stacy Perskie and directed by Grunberg, Get the Gringo is very much in line with many of the ‘80s Gibson films we loved (particularly the Lethal Weapon films) in that it freely mixes humour with intense, unforgiving violence and just a smidge of sentimentality. Here, it’s a winning mix, and a strong reminder of what a true movie star Gibson has always been.

Gibson plays an unnamed career criminal who gets arrested trying to flee Mexico with a couple of million dollars in his possession. This scene, with Gibson and his partner-in-crime in clown makeup, sets the tone for the rest of the film: we’re gonna get action and violence but it’s all going to revolve around a man who’s as much a clown as a tough guy. It’s an excellent opening (and includes a fun cameo for Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris playing – guess what? A border cop!)

Gibson’s character ends up in El Pueblito, an astounding prison that is essentially a town unto itself, with bars and restaurants, tattoo parlours, families, drug runners, and, of course, a complicated criminal hierarchy. It’s an absolutely fascinating and original setting for a movie, and its realisation is sensational: not only does the extraordinary production design make you feel, essentially, that they shot in a real, insane prison, but so does every single extra, whether they’re shooting smack, cooking pollo or simply hanging around. Everyone’s caked with sweat and dirt, their hair is matted, they have bruises, scars and wounds; Gibson, too, is given no star treatment, looking for most of the film every bit as dirty, haggard and unglamorous. Given the total control that Gibson and Icon have had making this film, it’s been freed from the Studio tyranny of “last checks” (the process by which make-up artists rush in to “touch up” the actors seconds before any given take); the filmmakers have obviously decided, and striven, to let everything be as grimy – and realistic – as possible. It’s a strange, scary, powerful world, and I bought it completely.

The first half of the film takes its time, allowing you to take in this world as Gibson’s character does, learning its unique ways, rhythms and characters; this section is accompanied by a fair amount of hard-boiled, Elmore Leonard-style voiceover by Gibson, which could be distracting but isn’t. Gradually, the story world grows, with more and more characters entering the fray (much like an Elmore Leonard novel, actually) until, of course, the bullets start to fly.

There are at least three terrific set pieces here and at least half a dozen excellent scenes; more importantly, despite its mix of wisecracks and seriously all-encompassing violence (women and children aren’t safe in this movie) the whole thing holds together: while there are obviously hugely improbable elements to the plot, there aren’t any actual holes – which is very rare for an actioner such as this.

Gibson has aged (obviously) and his once sparkly eyes have a watery quality to them now, as though a bit burnished by the booze and difficulties the actor has both propagated and suffered. But he is still an amazingly charismatic screen presence, and he carries the movie heroically, like movie stars of old (well, the ‘80s). Gibson, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis could always crack a joke before shooting some bad guys stone cold dead; Gibson still can, and his physical comedy remains as astute as ever.

The film was almost entirely shot in Mexico (indeed, its almost entirely set in the prison); its supporting cast of Mexican actors are all excellent, and the whole thing has a gritty authenticity that just shouts proudly that it was made outside the Hollywood Studio system. Towards the beginning, Gibson’s character gives a ten year old kid (who becomes a major character, without ever becoming a brat) a cigarette, and the kid lights it up and smokes it. Try getting MGM, Universal, Paramount or Disney to release that.

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