Get the Gringo is the best of the three films starring Mel Gibson in this period of penance in terms of his current standing in Hollywood.
Is it possible to look beyond his reprehensible statements and actions of recent years and still accept him in a movie? I have found that I can. His alcoholism is his own problem and it’s up to him to take responsibility for it, which apparently he’s on the road to doing. His personal life may be a shambles, but with his recent work in Edge of Darkness and The Beaver, I’m surprised to find that his screen presence is still a comfort despite all we know about his dirty laundry.
With this effort, Gibson–in the triple role of writer/producer/star–goes full badass with a character listed as Driver in the credits, but who never introduces that or any real name to us in the pic, directed by Apocalypto first A.D. Adrian Grunberg. Driver’s a career criminal and a former sharp shooter with the military, information that bodes very well for moviegoers who expect him to put that skill to good use here.
The movie wastes no time exploding onto the scene with urgency in a very physical car chase that sees Gibson and cohort in clown get-ups. American authorities are in hot pursuit along the Mexican border until Gibson eventually tries to jump the wall, literally crashing more onto Mexico than into.
The authorities on both sides share an understanding; the lead Mexican officer is willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that the car has landed on their side of the fence, allowing the Americans to deal with the problem without complications. Until, that is, he peers into the car and discovers the back seat is overflowing with loose cash, at which point the Mexicans do a hasty about-face, confiscating the criminals and the money.
Gibson’s partner-in-crime dies shortly after the crash. The Mexicans appear more interested in the money than in figuring out what the Gibson character is all about, and he is swiftly thrown into the El Pueblito prison and forgotten about. The conditions at first are grim and claustrophobic, with Gibson standing out like a sore thumb among the prison population until a U.S. Embassy guy played by that round and dependable character actor Peter Gerety (Prime Suspect, The Wire) finds him.
Before long, the prisoners are transported from the holding facility into a kind of shantytown within the jail that is reportedly what the place kind of looks like.
Gibson adjusts quickly to his new environment and capitalizes from his own badassedness in a clever sequence where he steals cash by creating an incendiary diversion. We soon learn that this act was witnessed by a 9 yr-old (children live in the shanty alongside their inmate parents, we learn). We come to know him as Kid and he’s played by Kevin Hernandez, the renegade adopted son among those kids in last year’s The Sitter. Much of the second act of the pic involves Driver and Kid simply getting to know each other. It’s the best part of the movie. They form a quick bond, no doubt in part because of their mutually shared street smarts and people-watching talents.
A plot develops involving the hierarchy among the shady characters in the shanty and it is paralleled by developments outside the jail involving the cops, the Embassy guy, and the $2 million and change that was originally stolen by Driver. The facts of the plot aren’t nearly as interesting as the fascination we bring to how all the threads and relationships play out because of the singularity of focus the movie has in its breakneck pacing. Every scene is played with strict economy. There are many characters and it all moves briskly, but I was never lost.
Underneath the surface narrative is a serpentine plot coiling up underneath and Grunberg directs those sequences with assurance. So much so that to our strange fascination, we come to believe who these people are, what they’re doing, and what they mean to each other in this world that depends upon a great deal of coincidence and good timing. Perhaps it’s that the rules of the street are observed so keenly here that it distracts us from asking any questions. Characters are either chasing someone or being chased, and there’s a harmony to that dance that makes perfect sense for why the flick’s first big prison shootout sequence employs the visual strategy that it does.
Adrian Grunberg should have a fine directing career based on the many gifts on display from him here. Get the Gringo charges forward with purpose, scenes are sharply devised and crisply executed, the characters are compelling with their own challenges and motivations, and real tension is gathered throughout. If the third act disappoints, it’s because of the realization that the movie isn’t really aiming all that high, settling for B-Movie status. A strange move, since for the first hour, it really goes for broke and really feels like it just might amount to one of the best films of the year. It isn’t, however a ground-rule double isn’t such a bad consolation.
Gibson sinks his teeth into this role, essentially an asshole who is made good by the end. I loved that it’s a dirty role for him and he appears to embrace it. The revelation here is little Kevin Hernandez, whose presence humanizes Gibson. He’s smart, tough and quick-witted as Kid, exuding a natural, unforced charm. And watch out for Peter Stormare (Steve Buscemi‘s big lug of an associate in Fargo) as Frank, the guy who’s money was stolen by Driver. He’s nearly unrecognizable at first because we meet him on a computer in a hilarious scene where he’s watching his money being stolen from him a second time.
Get the Gringo isn’t the film that will make Hollywood welcome Gibson back with open arms, and that’s just as well. It’s a fine piece of entertainment with good writing, confident direction, and one terrific performance after another in a movie that finally settles for being a diversion instead of following up on the promise of its excellent first hour, that plays so well that I hope Oliver Stone sees it so he can understand why his Savages didn’t work so much, while Get the Gringo does.
*** (out of 4)