Fun, appropriately grimy, and with a hard-boiled edge, this pseudo-western has an American thief put in an ornate, unconventional prison known as “El Pueblito” that he must escape to recover his lost loot. We start out like Reservoir Dogs, with two thieves hawling ass away from police with one of them bleeding out in the back seat; except this time, they’re both dressed like clowns, and there’s voiceover from Mel Gibson bitching about how the dying one is spewing blood all over his money. He hits the Mexican border, and finds a way to jump across the wall separating the two nations. The federales initially relent the bust to the Feds that drove him over the wall, but after seeing the bagfuls of cash in the car, they insist on taking the “two clowns” in themselves. The bleeder dies, and Mel’s character gets taken into Pueblito, a radically unconventional prison by U.S. standards due to a lax security system that allows retail of everything from real estate to candy bars, as well as allowing families to reside with their incarcerated loved ones. While scoping out the power players in an attempt to finagle his way out of there, he meets a resourceful kid who is directly linked to the richest, most influential man in the joint. Inevitably, he begrudgingly gets attached to the kid, as well as his tough, hot mama, and must figure out how to use him to get out of the prison without endangering the likable lad’s life in the process.
How you feel about the film is directly related to how you feel about the lead, Mel Gibson; this is a star-power fueled flick, with him being the only A-lister in the cast, and much of the film revolves around showing how badass his character is. If you think of Mel as some sort of beyond-repair psychopath, impossible to separate from his public troubles and grotesque outbursts, then this film will probably leave the same taste that M:I-3 did after Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch. If you’re like me, and what a talent does in his personal life has very little impact on your enjoyment of their work (unless he throws his girlfriend out of a moving car, but who would ever do that??), then you are able to enjoy this film for the snarky, dirt-covered romp that it is, centered around a particularly badass cat. Much of the pleasure of the film is derived from watching Mel’s character (whose alleged name is revealed to be Richard a.k.a. Dick Johnson) instinctively handle the various situations thrown his way. He is a tough customer, unfazed by his presence as a stranger in a strange land, and he proves both resourceful enough to have our attention and just humane enough to earn our respect. The film does not have a massive budget, and the action scenes are sporadic and fast, but are fully realized and take advantage of Mel’s action movie history; not everyone, especially not many nearly 60 year-olds, can elicit equal cheers and laughter from catching a grenade in mid-air and lobbying it back at the assailant.
While I was not that impressed by Mel’s last feature as a leading man, The Beaver, I felt that his performance was excellent, and showed that he was still capable of strongly doing both dramatic and comedic work. Here, he is more Payback and Lethal Weapon than What Women Want, and he slips into the Parker-esque leading role like a glove, tearing into his narration with Mickey Rourke-Sin City levels of grit and wiseassery. With the age-old lines in his face deeper than ever and bearing a salt+pepper head of hair, he comes off as more experienced and weathered than volatile or unstable, and I could totally see him making a new career out of playing this less palatable, but infinitely enjoyable variation of his old movie-star persona. He is backed up by Kevin Hernandez as the kid that fuels much of the plot; far from his shucking and jiving as the stereotypical Rodrigo in The Sitter, he is nuanced, tough, and hints at a maturity that could carry his career through adolescence (as long as growing up doesn’t take too much of a toll on his looks). The actress playing his mom is also strong, making a likable presence out of what could’ve been a forced, arbitrary role. Character actors Peter Stormare and Bob Gunton show up as corrupt businessmen, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Morris makes an early cameo as a dogged FBI agent (he’ll probably never get the Zac Efron role or anything like that, but doesn’t anyone see him as anything but law enforcement?) but the supporting cast is mostly Mexican unknowns, who rise to occasion and back up Mel’s central star turn.
Recommended to fans of Mel Gibson, neo-westerns such as Last Man Standing or classic, dirty westerns like the ones Peckinpah and Leone made. This didn’t get a theatrical release, unfortunately, failing to fulfill any of the business models that go into marketing a feature nationwide (unlike Think Like A Man and The Lucky One with Mr. Efron, last weekends biggest successes); but at home, with a beer and/or a bong, the film should mighty enjoyable for those still open to another hour-half of Mel Gibson badassery.
P.S. It must be noted that, in the live Q&A from Austin that proceeded the screening, that Harry Knowles of AICN made mention that, contrary of the public’s view of Mel’s attitude toward those of the Jewish persuasion, several key crew members, including the director/co-writer Adrian Grunberg (also Mel’s A.D. from Apocalypto), were of that faith. While it was an uncomfortable moment, it served to highlight how the current trend of tagging him as a vehemently racist anti-semite (that cost Mel his job on The Hangover Part II, amongst other things) may be somewhat msiguided. Personally, from what I have read, Mel’s personal problems seem to stem more from a self-admitted case of anger management than any sort of poisonous, unforgivable worldviews, but, as we have seen, that is really for John Q. Public, and the ticket-takers watching them, to decide. Nevertheless, I hope he gets the job he’s currently up for in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills; I think he would make a great, sensational villain, and if he played up his more nasty habits with a comic awareness that he certainly has exhibited in the past, it could be really fun to see him chew scenery and get chopped up by Danny Trejo & co.