How I Spent My Summer Vacation
What Mel did next.
Mel Gibson has, as most of you will know, been keeping a low profile in Hollywood of late, whether by choice or by reprimand I shall leave it to you to decide. With psycho-drama The Beaver sinking without trace post-drunken anti semitic rant, Gibson clearly understands that his vitriol ought to be directed at a demographic less prevalent within the upper echelons of his chosen field, and so it is that in How I Spent My Summer Vacation he chooses instead to shoot quite a few Mexicans, presumably because set builders hold less sway over green-lighting projects than studio heads.
Otherwise known less evocatively but perhaps more succinctly as "Get the Gringo" in other territories, How I Spent My Summer Vacation opens with Gibson's character Driver fleeing for the Mexican border with a badly shot-up colleague and two million dollars in cash on the back seat, and a couple of determined cop cars on his ass. One half successful attempt at Steve McQueening the Tex-Mex border wall later, Driver, his now deceased colleague and the cash find themselves in the hands of Mexico's stereotypically corrupt federales, and true to form a fool and his money are soon parted. Driver is unceremoniously tossed in Mexico's notorious El Pueblito prison, an open sewer of human remains where a handfull of cigarettes or better yet dollars can buy you anything from a shot of heroin in the neck to ten minutes of privacy in a rickety tent with your wife.
What follows is an ostensibly acceptable 90 minutes of casual violence, torture and general skullduggery as Driver angles to position himself advantageously within El Pueblito's power structure, using the fact that his stolen cash came from a now-enraged drugs kingpin as leverage against both the prison gangs and the cops who have been dining out on those ill-gotten gains. Throw in a kind-hearted, prison-dwelling Mexican widow whose son is somewhat convolutedly being reared as an organ donor for one of the prison's top inmates, and you have a recipe for some potentially explosive scenarios.
Perhaps unfortunate then that the only thing explosive about Gibson's self-produced comeback should be the frequent use of grenades as means of spectacularly despatching some of the plot's less savoury individuals. Director and co-writer Adrian Grunberg has an impressive CV as second unit director to the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Tony Scott and Peter Weir, as well as having worked with Gibson previously on Edge of Darkness and his own directorial effort Apocalypto, but the odd moment of visual flair aside his efforts here seem ever-so-slightly workmanlike.
Tone is something Summer Vacation clearly strives for, but Grunberg seems to over-stretch himself somewhat in walking that fine line between brutality and comedy these types of movies often aim for. How much of that is down to the script is up for debate, but even on paper it's hard to imagine how a film could play out convincingly when you have Mel Gibson bizarrely duping a local businessman over the phone by impersonating Clint Eastwood one minute, while in the next a character is having his toes unceremoniously removed with bolt cutters by cartel members at the behest of their boss who is issuing commands via Skype video chat.
The character of Driver is exactly as one would expect, which is to say it adheres to the well-established Mel Gibson anti-hero archetype. Despite being an ex-army mercenary who steals from drugs gangs and pays scant deference to mortally wounded colleagues we are expected to empathise with him because he is affably sarcastic, jokes casually about being beaten to within an inch of his life and eventually decides that a couple of million dollars does not outweigh the life of a young boy who has already saved his own skin on a number of occasions. A precise blend of Lethal Weapon's Riggs and Payback's Porter, basically. Speaking of Payback, Summer Vacation evokes more than a few memories of that, arguably superior film, in so much as Gibson's choice of character traits are somewhat similar, as well as the shared voice over which is at least useful in this instance given how unnecessarily convoluted the plot becomes.
Driver is at least a marginally less nihilistic character than Porter, though it's perhaps ironically even harder to empathise with him. Where Porter at least had his own, stubborn sense of principle and morality, Driver is altogether harder to come to terms with as a low-life since his moral compass feels in a constant state of flux. The script, co-written by Gibson, Grunberg and Stacy Perskie seems more interested in pointless prison life observations and asides than it does in bringing any redemptive qualities Driver may have to life.
Fortunately there is one notable performance in the movie, that of the young Kevin Hernandez in the role of Kid, the walking liver donor for prison kingpin Javi. Some may recognise Hernandez from Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter, and while I am not familiar with that movie myself his performance here suggests it may be worth checking out for his presence alone. Kid is the only real heart the movie has to speak of, and Hernandez's performance is the one cast-iron piece of structure within a film that otherwise threatens to collapse under the weight of a central conceit that feels like a lump of lead.
Ultimately, How I spent My Summer Vacation is neither a masterpiece nor a complete wash-out. There is, at least, enough of note in terms of style to sustain it's relatively brief running time, and Gibson is hard to hate because, well, he's Mel Gibson, and anti-semitic, drunken ranting aside he always comes across as an otherwise affable fellow. The merits of Summer Vacation are fitting in so much as they always feel as though they could, like Gibson's career, go either one way or the other. I suspect any legacy it may have will be as a starting point on that arc, whichwever direction it ends up pointing. Outside of that context this is perfectly bland Saturday night sofa beer fodder, and little else.
Kevin Hernandez (Kid)