It can’t be an accident that Mel Gibson’s most recent films — 2010’s Edge of Darkness, 2011’s The Beaver, and now Get the Gringo — are unflinchingly dark. Now, it’s impossible and reckless to attempt to tie those films to Gibson’s very public problems of the past decade; in fact, any real filmic response on his part to his personal breakdowns would likely be an obsequious comedy designed to recapture some of the charming smugness he brought to the movies that made him a star in the first place. No, these movies are grim for grimness’ sake, as if he’s desperate to do anything and everything to break from those old roles and try something new. Maybe it was evident in 1999’s Payback (a spiritual prequel to Get the Gringo), or in the way Gibson’s directorial work returned time and again to physical disfigurement and sacrifice: the scarred, sexually confused/-ing man without a face giving way to martyrs like William Wallace and Jesus Christ, then finally all-out tribal warfare revolving around ritualized killing. Gibson, it would seem, is drawn to these awful places more than we’ve ever liked to admit.
What’s fascinating, then, is the way he’s never at his best when doing what he wants to be doing, and at his most winning doing anything else. His recent acting roles and work behind the camera have been muddled, off-putting affairs, while the films considered his greatest hits are endearing precisely to the degree they stave off that darkness and go into the light. The Lethal Weapon films wasted little time taking Gibson from brooding to just regularly wacky, while most of his work in the 1990s and early 2000s dealt with normal guys just trying to get by. As expected, then, Get the Gringo feels like the stuff Gibson really wants to be doing — it’s a murky, slippery film that’s not nearly as sure of itself or its tone as its director and star would want it to be — yet it’s a mess because of it. It’s callous and dark, yet also worried that too much reality will make us forget to root for Gibson. It’s occasionally wry and funny, yet it squanders a comic touch with stock characters and dialogue recycled from a thousand other movies. If not for Gibson’s ability to remain gruffly charming in even the direst of straits, it would fall apart at the slightest touch. It’s almost proudly schizophrenic, with Gibson straddling the line between entertainer and introvert. It tries to show both sides of Gibson, and it loses all around.
Written by Gibson, producer Stacy Perskie, and director Adrian Grunberg (and based on an idea by Gibson), the film feels at first to fit right in with Payback, right down to the gruff, pithy voice-over from a protagonist happily at home being bad. Gibson plays a man with no name — he gives a number of aliases, but he’s billed only as the Driver, an unfortunately timed coincidence — who commits a robbery and leads officials on a high-speed chase before barreling over the U.S.-Mexico border. The Mexican cops, seeing how much money he has on him, promptly book him and keep the loot. Driver is subsequently shipped off to El Pueblito, a sprawling prison that’s run more like a high-security commune defined by dirty streets, hidden alleys, and a thriving black market.
Driver’s efforts to get his money back lead to predictably greater showdowns, but the whole thing feels perfunctory in the way of regular old B-movies. The problem isn’t that Gibson and co. don’t have a workable frame on which to build a story; it’s that they do so carelessly, sloppily, assuming we’ll be interested without bother to make us care. To return once more to Payback (a film so blatantly copied here I thought Get the Gringo was a sequel the first time I saw the trailer), it’s great to make a revenge thriller, but there has to be more at stake than just some missing cash. We have to actually want our guy to get it back. In the earlier film, Gibson’s character wanted his stolen goods to obtain his freedom and restore the missing parts of his life, and we saw him rebuild his tattered relationships in the process. Yet that film feels oceans deeper than the slick, grimy work of Gringo, which goes through all the motions but forgets to work in any brainpower or heart.
The film’s look doesn’t fare much better than its story, either. Directed by Grunberg and shot by Benoit Debie, the film is burned-out and dirty, relying far too often on shaky-cam aesthetics and poorly choreographed fight scenes. It also inexplicably switches from film to digital in the climactic battle, though whether this was a misguided visual statement or a choice born of economics isn’t clear. Grunberg’s clearly a hard worker, having moved up the assistant director track with credits including Man on Fire, Jarhead, and Gibson’s Edge of Darkness and Apocalypto. Scenes are alternately too dark or too bright, badly framed or dully composed. In the absence of any real tonal ideas, the filmmakers go for broke and try all of them. Additionally, some of the cracks in the story show in the final edit. Scene fragments are shown with the intent of making them appear to happen at different times, yet the set-ups and clothing are such that they’re clearly from the same original instance, just cut up and spread out. This isn’t a narrative conceit, either. It’s merely rough storytelling.
Despite not having anything interesting to do, Gibson is still a compelling figure on screen. His enemies here are paper thin, though, and rarely scary — in attempting to give them a kind of dark humor, Grunberg just makes them goofy — which makes the Driver’s increasingly complex schemes for revenge feel horribly overwrought. As dark as the film wants to be (or thinks it is), it’s remarkably watered-down. If it weren’t for the desert climate in the prison yard, he’d barely break a sweat. He’s reluctantly pulled into some drama involving the crime boss running the joint (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a woman doing time there (Dolores Heredia), and her precocious 10-going-on-35 son (Kevin Hernandez), but everything about his involvement with them and what passes for his relationship with the woman feels forced, forgettable, and fake to the core. Gibson’s a powerful performer, and he needs a foil, romantic or antagonistic (or both), and he doesn’t get anything here but some well-intentioned but outclassed amateurs.
The film has the unpleasant odor that comes from trying a bit too hard to be liked, even if it’s for being bad. More than anything, it’s hard not to feel that the film is a product designed to flip certain levers in Gibson’s life and career and put him back on a trajectory toward having the creative power he used to wield. Some other film might accomplish that task, but it won’t be Get the Gringo. It’s skipping theaters altogether and heading directly to VOD May 1, with home video and downloads to follow. It will slink away to TV menus and bargain bins before becoming an answer to a trivia question people will rarely ask. It’s impossible not to think of these things while watching the film, and to feel empathy for the man on the screen. Like his hastily constructed character, he’s trapped in a place he didn’t create, with no clear idea how to get out. I pity him, and wonder if he can ever return.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.