Mel Gibson is back in top form as a gimlet-eyed career criminal in freshman director Adrian Grunberg's "Get the Gringo," a gritty, gory, hard-boiled crime thriller set inside a corrupt Mexican prison where anything goes. Good movies don't dawdle, and rarely does this bullet-riddled, shoot'em up about life behind bars telegraph its next move. Any prison where an inmate's family can move in with him while he serves time is pretty unusual. The prison resembles something out of a bloodthirsty Robert Rodriguez actioneer. Men come and go with loaded weapons in plain sight. You can even shell out bucks for a shot of heroin administered by needle in a grungy shop. Everything in this replica of Tijuana's El Pueblito has a price. "You can buy anything," asserts one character, "except your way out." As an anonymous convict, Gibson provides the kind of voice-over we usually hear in a loquacious Martin Scorsese film. Gibson's sarcastic commentary about the prison with its unusual routines and procedures highlights the surreal nature of the squalid setting.
You never really know for certain where things are heading in this violent, amoral, tongue-in-cheek, 95-minute melodrama. "Get the Gringo" opens with Driver (Mel Gibson of "Payback") and his mortally wounded partner in clown costumes careening down a highway with the cops in close pursuit. Anybody who has seen Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" might find this opening rather familiar, but the resemblance ends quickly. Desperately, Driver plows his car through the border fence, and Mexican police arrest him. The Texas police try to persuade the Mexicans to remand him into their custody. One glance at two duffel bags bulging with millions in cash prompts the Mexicans to keep Driver on their side of the line. Once Driver lands in the big house, he gets chummy with a 10-year-old kid (Kevin Hernandez of "The Sitter") who is plotting to exact revenge on another criminal, Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho of "Cronos"), who killed his father. The 10-year old's mother and father were incarcerated for selling narcotics. Initially, Driver uses cigarettes to bribe the youngster into silence. You see, the urchin saw Driver rob a fat, slimy heroin dealer after he set a fire to create a distraction.
Before long Driver's nemesis, Frank (Peter Stormare of "The Million Dollar Hotel"), dispatches professional killers to ferret out the millions that Driver stole. They track down the crooked cops who arrested Driver and start amputating toes to loosen tongues. Meantime, Driver struggles inside the prison to gain Javi's confidence and engineer a deal so he can get out, return to America, and plug Frank. Driver has no respect for anybody but himself, and he abhors Javi with a passion after he learns why the prison kingpin has singled out the 10-year old for preferential treatment. As it turns out, the youth has a liver compatible with Javi's blood type, and Javi needs a fresh liver. Javi hires a surgeon (Patrick Bauchau of "A View to a Kill") to harvest the youngster's liver and transplant it into his body. Interestingly, "Get the Gringo" could be compared to the silent Charles Chaplin comedy "The Kid" because an adult sets out to help a less fortunate child. Indeed, aside from the urchin who befriends him, Gibson is as virtuous as Saint Peter compared with the murderous malcontents who populate the prison. The suspense mounts as Driver plans to kill Frank and get back to the prison in time to save the child.
At one point, three gunmen stroll into the prison and try to ice Driver. When the gunfire erupts, they hit everybody but Driver. Bodies litter the premises. The Warden (Fernando Becerril of "Ravenous") informs Javi that the government plans to shut them down as a consequence of the gunfight. Of course, the whole point to any prison picture is how the hero manages to escape. Happily, Gibson survives with everything intact, while the treacherous villains bite the dust. Grunberg orchestrates several chaotic shoot-outs, and Gibson is by no means a typical convict. When they fingerprint him, Mexican authorities discover that he has burned off his fingerprints. Everybody is out to take advantage of Driver, including some greedy Americans. Nevertheless, agile-minded Driver turns the tables on everybody.
"Blackout" production designer Bernardo Trujillo has performed miracles with the closed down Veracruz prison where the film was lensed on location. Grunberg and he have managed to recreate a world teeming with the dredges of humanity, a microcosm of Hell, where men degenerate into brutish savages and display no qualms about killing each other. Basically, what you've got is Darwin's survival of the fittest in the worst place on Earth. Nevertheless, this miserable hell hole turns out to be a paradise ripe for the plucking for the cynical Driver. Although Gibson qualifies as the hero, he is very anti-heroic. He makes no apologies about being on the wrong side of the law. He admits that he tried to kill his worthless father and that put him in prison the first time.
Initially, "Get the Gringo" was entitled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." At least the latter title has some irony, but "Get the Gringo" gets to the point quicker and summarizes the action. Director Adrian Grunberg gives a good account of himself. The prison setting looks thoroughly authentic, and Grunberg relies on Mexican music to evoke the culture. Fans of Mel Gibson who haven't seen him in a gripping action thriller since his "Lethal Weapon" days won't feel like they have been shortchanged. Gibson has done nothing like "Get the Gringo," and no Hollywood epic has depicted life behind bars as "Get the Gringo." Life below the border has never been presented so pungently unless you've seen something comparable like Luis Buñuel's 1950 crime movie "The Young and the Damned." Incidentally, although this film showing in theaters in the rest of the world, "Get the Gringo" is available in America only as a video-on-demand through Direct TV.
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