by Tony Dayoub
After ending up in a crowded Mexican jail cell, one is likely to think things can't get much worse for the titular American in Get the Gringo—an unlucky wheel-man known only as Driver (Mel Gibson). But Driver's release into the general prison population of "el Pueblito" is kind of a mixed blessing. For Driver, a natural con man who mainly survives more by his wits than any feats of strength, the prison is rightly intimidating. But this underworld has a social structure all its own. In a quick and efficient montage, director Adrian Grunberg follows Driver as he gets the lay of the land, sizing up who's in power, who isn't and everybody in between. Driver's only hope for getting back to the U.S. is to learn the societal norms of "el Pueblito," so called because it is the size of a small town with, surprisingly, its own population of women and children living alongside the sleazier dregs of humanity.
"El Pueblito" makes a great setting for Get the Gringo. With its Spanish speaking inhabitants (ambitiously, more than 50% of the film's dialogue is subtitled) and topsy-turvy criminal milieu, "el Pueblito" provides a fresh venue for what is basically a prison film-cum-neo-noir. This setting smartly allows Driver, an otherwise non-descript character (especially now that the aging Gibson has lost much of his pretty-boy luster) to stand out in relief to his grimier inmates. But it also affords the filmmakers the opportunity to place Driver with a surrogate family that complicates the tired old tropes of this type of movie, the Double-Cross and the Escape.
At the heart of Get the Gringo is the dynamic chemistry between Driver and the Kid (Kevin Hernandez), a 10-year-old born to two inmates imprisoned for drug trafficking. The Driver's relationship with this wild child recalls Gibson's interaction with the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior (1981). Watch this clip to see what I mean:
What makes Gibson so interesting in his masochistic fantasy pictures is that you can't quite ever get a bead on where his characters are coming from. Is Max Rockatansky (The Mad Max Trilogy) driven by survival, or a residual need for revenge against road marauders, some of whom murdered his wife and baby? Is Martin Riggs (Lethal Weapon) just a reckless cop, or does he nurse one hell of a death wish? Driver gets involved with the Kid to protect him from Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho), "el Pueblito's" top dog. Javi killed the Kid's dad to harvest his liver for a transplant, since dad was the only match. But the Kid strolls through "el Pueblito" under Javi's aegis, since the crime boss's unrepentant drinking and whoring has marked the Kid for a reluctant liver transplant one day. Maybe the real reason Driver has fallen in with the Kid is because he gets him close to "el Pueblito's" most powerful captive. Or Driver could be trying to hook up with the Kid's Mom (Dolores Heredia). A bit run down but still attractive enough to use her physical assets to get by, she tries to keep her son out of trouble, as much as one can in this environment. So she sees the benefit in cultivating a relationship with Driver.
Heredia is strong in what could have been a thankless damsel in distress role. She not only holds her own with Gibson onscreen, she gets many small moments in which she can display her range. If she's not being maternal to Hernandez, she's being flirty with Gibson, fending off the unwanted advances of her slimy inmates or, in one grueling scene, succumbing to a grisly electro-shock torture, the kind which we usually associate with Gibson's penchant for abuse in many of his movies. It's a good showcase for Heredia, an actress whose perhaps best known credit is the little-known Mexican prison soap opera, Capadocia (which can be seen on HBO Latino).
Recognizable, strong character players fill out the remainder of Get the Gringo's supporting cast including Scott Cohen, Bob Gunton, Dean Norris and Peter Stormare. Director Grunberg, whose accumulated a nice set of credits as a second-unit director for Gibson (Apocalypto), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and others, turns in a remarkably accomplished-looking film. But with Gibson credited as both producer and writer, is it possible Grunberg might just be fronting for the actor turned auteur? Get the Gringo exceeds expectations, but it would only look like a simple doodle for Gibson the filmmaker (which explains why Get the Gringo might be bypassing theaters and premiering on DirecTV). Essentially, Get the Gringo is a vehicle for Mel, whose public image has taken some hits lately, something that allows him to rehabilitate his bruised image without going into the fanciful over-correction a traditional shining knight a typical hero would represent. But as far as VOD action movies go, one could do far worse than the lean, mean Get the Gringo.
Get the Gringo premieres May 1st exclusively on DirecTV before moving on to other VOD platforms later this summer.