Clearly Mel Gibson still has a box office stigma, even after the mild success of The Beaver last year. As a result, it seems that the studio is trying to shunt his most recent film, Get the Gringo, onto the straight-to-TV market, and are intentionally keeping it out of theaters to avoid any sort of media firestorm that such an action would incur. Gibson, despite all of his offensive off-screen antics, you'll find, is still a rousing and charismatic performer, and Get the Gringo is, despite it all, a wickedly enjoyable piece of scuzz cinema that would, perhaps, benefit from a theatrical release. Since this film is clearly being pushed to the side, some geek critics (well, notably Harry Knowles) is lionizing it as the next great outsider crime film. It debuts on DirecTV on Tuesday May 1st.
I'm having trouble picturing who could better play the lead role in Get the Gringo. Someone tougher and more grizzled (like, say, Jason Statham) would have bogged the film down into a usual action cliché. Someone more quirky (like, say, Sam Rockwell) would have mutated the film into an insufferably mannered and cutesy parody of cartoonish non-characters. Oddly Gibson, with this handsome face, strong frame, awesome screen presence, and natural charm, gives his character a dazzlingly subtle disregard for anything decent, making the so-credited “Driver” into one of the most compelling crime antiheroes seen in many years. He plays a career criminal – whose true name we really learn – and find that he, as such an experienced veteran of the underworld, has the knowhow to make his way in one of the most horrible places in the world: a Tijuana prison camp. Get the Gringo feels like a late-1990s post-Pulp Fiction ripoff, but is, at that, one of the better ones.
The Driver (Gibson) is, in the film's opening scene, already fleeing the cops in a daring race to the Mexican border. He is still wearing his clown mask, fistfuls of cash ore flying out the open window, and his accomplice sits, panicking, bleeding to death in the back seat. He crashes through the border. The corrupt U.S. cops insist on arresting him and taking the money, but the Mexican cops, equally corrupt, decide to steal the money themselves, and throw our hero into prison. This is not a prison with cells or guards, but looks more like a hot, sunny, dirty, busy version of the New York “prison” in Escape from New York. Gibson, with the ease of an expert, learns who the honchos are in the prison (there's an evil rich thug named Frank, played by Peter Stormare, who rules this place with a tin fist), and goes about stirring the pot of scum and villainy. He beats up the right people, and steals from the right people. Eventually, kind of by accident, he finds himself looking after a vengeful young at-risk boy (Kevin Hernandez) and his hard-working and temperamental mother (Dolores Heredia) who is just barely on this side of prostitution. Don't worry, though, our antihero will not become a softy; indeed his first lessons to the boy are how to properly kill a man, and how to wait for just the right opportunity.
The plot with the money is a bit twisted and a bit hard-to-follow, but then, that's an element that marks this kind of scuzzy crime movie. There is a corrupt American parole officer involved, a cameo by Bob Gunton, Frank's twin brother (also Stormare), and a plot to get Gibson back into America in order to pay for an emergency liver transplant. Like I said; it could have been too quirky for its own good. As it stands, though, Get the Gringo is surprisingly good, coming out of left field the way it did. It was directed by Adrian Grunberg, who has been working as a 2nd unit director on multiple Hollywood blockbusters and various Mexican thrillers since the mid-1990s. This is his first feature. If he can so deftly handle complicated stories, exciting mean characters, strange locales, and charismatic actors, then I look forward to more of his work.