If every mention of a new Mel Gibson movie must invariably proffer at least a passing mention of his widely glimpsed private life — and sadly this seems to be the case, so best to get it out the way early — at least Gibson can take some comfort in the knowledge that his creative output is roaring along just fine, his current career trajectory favouring sustaining street cred over restoring mainstream appeal.

Gibson’s previous film, Jodie Foster’s The Beaver (2011), was a gutsy take on mid-life crisis and mental illness, driven by a wry baggy-eyed performance in a role that summoned unsettling parallels to the man himself. Get the Gringo sees the return of bad ass Mel, the macho-macho man, all gravelly voice, misanthropic sadness and two-steps-ahead conman, more than passingly similar to his grizzled glare in 2010’s The Edge of Darkness, 1999’s Payback or even, with an added dose of honest-to-god desperation, 1996’s Ransom.

Gibson’s Fred Astaire inspired jiggy in What Women Want (2000) feels decades old these days, a rose-filtered relic from a distant, simpler, pre anti-Semitic past. His gristle is extra spicy now, flavoured by the failures of success, the pitfalls of celeb — of flying too close to the sun for too long and getting scorched; rocked and slammed in the court of public opinion; fed back his own bile from the Hollywood hand that feeds.

Leery, weary and softened by a fuzzy flicker of humanity, which seems to drip effortlessly from Gibson’s mopey face, he is in fine form in Gringo as a character known only as ‘Driver’. Having stolen millions, with a bleeding clown (literally) in the back seat, Driver outruns the cops and crashes through the border of Mexico.

The film’s wiseguy voice over narration is a cracker. “Theres nothing worse than a sad clown,” says, Driver. “Unless it’s a clown bleeding internally and coughing it all over your money.”

Once in Mexico, Driver is detained in the notorious El Pueblito prison. He befriends a 10-year-old boy (Kevin Hernandez) and examines El Pueblito’s social and commercial infrastructure (“is this a prison or the worlds shittiest mall?”) with an eye to ‘play the game’: get on top of the elements, locate the big wigs, schmooze in the right circles, etcetera.

El Pueblito is presented as a microcosm of society in the same broad way Brian Trenchard-Smith fed gas into Dead-End Drive In (1986), in which a drive in cinema was treated as stomping grounds for commentary on hierarchy, politics, class and so forth; a community — nay, city — unto its own.

Driver’s motivations are unclear and his presence largely reactionary. We know he wants out (naturally) but the film isn’t about him hatching an escape plan. Similarly, we know he wants his money back but the film isn’t about him chasing down the bag. The final act of Gringo deliberately changes tact, shifts tone and leaps into some curly plot points.

While debut director Adrian Grunberg struggles to bring it all together, he pulls it off in the end with a healthy dose of cool factor for those who don’t mind their humour black and their action conveniently trivialised. And — most of all — those partial to the Gibson gristle.

Get the Gringo’s Australian theatrical release date: May 31, 2012

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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