The Best Movie You Never Saw: Get The Gringo
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
Captured by the Mexican authorities in a getaway attempt after a robbery, Driver (Gibson) is sent to a prison called “El Pueblito” where he befriends a 10-year-old boy and his mother. Struggling to survive the dangerous and chaotic prison life, Driver tries to escape his past and the prison itself, while taking down everyone that’s after him in the process.
Written by Mel Gibson, Stacy Perskie, and Adrian Grunberg, the film is directed by Grunberg and stars Gibson as “Driver” with Kevin Hernandez as “Kid” and Dolores Heredia as “Kid’s Mom.” Supporting cast includes Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Peter Gerety, Bob Gunton, Peter Stormare and even a cameo from Dean Norris.
While shooting APOCALYPTO (coincidentally, another of my BMYNS picks), Mel Gibson worked closely both Adrian Grunberg and Stacy Perskie who served as 1st and 2nd AD on the film, respectively. Having proven their skills behind the camera as well as being well versed on Mexico, Gibson pitched an idea he had about an American sent to a Mexican prison and the group began working out the story, while beginning their research into the subject, particularly that of Mexican prisons.
Basing a lot of their research on the real-world prison in Tijuana known as “El Pueblito” which at one time “housed more U.S. citizens than any other foreign penitentiary” they crafted a tale that is likened to Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, having a lead character amidst a gang war of sorts, while maneuvering them against one another. Interviewing former prisoners, guards, and people familiar with El Pueblito, as well as scouring articles, newspapers, etc. on the famously grim prison, Gibson, Grunberg, and Perskie pounded out a script with Grunberg in mind to direct from the beginning. While Gibson didn’t commit to starring in the film right away, he eventually fell in line with full confidence in Grunberg to rein it in.
"Everything that you see in the film is pieces of research that we picked up in the process of writing the story. In general, the backdrop of what you see in this actual prison, El Pueblito, which is the one we based it on is real. The general rules that we set up were in the prison when it was raided and shut down. The fact that you had men, women and children living together; the fact that the inmates could bring their relatives to live with them inside this prison – it’s all fact.” – Stacy Perskie
Filming commenced in March 2010 under the title HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION with El Pueblito being recreated at an actual Mexican prison, Ignacio Allende Prison to be exact, which actually caused early protests from prisoners’ family members, fearing a transfer of their loved one as a result of the film. However, things fell into place quickly and the film was shot at the prison, as well as a few scenes in San Diego, California and Brownsville, Texas. El Pueblito was recreated with exhausting detail inside the prison, which serves as the main location throughout the film.
Once complete and distribution secured, the film was tested and a title change was in order, moving to the shorter title of GET THE GRINGO (although it retains the original title in many other markets).
"When Twentieth Century Fox made a deal to distribute the film they started testing the title and it was a bit confusing for some people and as a result they decided to look for a new title, and Mel had the idea of Get the Gringo instead. We were attached to the film for a couple of years before it came out so we really liked the idea for the original title but we grew to really like the new title as well.” – Stacy Perskie
However, the journey to the big screen was cut short, as Gibson opted to try out VOD (Video on Demand) via DirecTV, making a risky and bold move for the film’s release. While some speculated that the move was because of Gibson’s recent (at the time) personal life issues, which seemed to lend defeat to his prior starring role in Jodie Foster’s THE BEAVER (grossing only $1 million domestically), it was more in line with his Hollywood risk-taking when it comes to both financing and distributing films he produced through his Icon banner. It was a model that Gibson supported, as it cut costs on advertising and would test the waters on the (then) growing trend of day-and-date VOD releases, which continue to grow to this day. Lest we forget that Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is still the most successful indie film of all time, grossing a $982 million total cume.
GET THE GRINGO opened theatrically overseas in March 2012, then on DirecTV exclusive on May 1st, 2012, expanding to other VOD services a month later. Numbers are shaky in terms of how GET THE GRINGO did overall with its VOD and DirecTV numbers (which aren’t made public), so it’s hard to say just how successful it was or wasn’t. However, critical reception was overwhelmingly positive with the film coming in at 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the lack of a theatrical release seems to have caused the film to fly over the radar of your average moviegoer, leaving it to be mostly appreciated by hardcore fans that sought it out on VOD or those that stumbled upon it on Netflix.
"Mel offered me the chance to direct and there was no way I was going to say no. Not only because it was Mel, the actor, but it was a guy who I’d been working with for the last few years. I enjoy him as an actor and I enjoy him as a director. In terms of how my experience helped me – it was the understanding of the psychology, how a set breathes and lives on a daily basis. That’s the experience that I’ve had for many years as an assistant director. As as a crew member you get to work with many different directors – as a director you never get to work with another director again. So I was able to cherish these jobs where I was able to work beside Oliver Stone, Mel Gibson, Tony Scott, Jim Jarmusch. Those are people I admired for years.” – Adrian Grunberg
WHY IT’S GREAT:
I grew up on Mel Gibson. I grew up on a lot of ‘80’s (and 90’s) action stars, as did many young kids looking for heroes and role models at that time. I know that sounds ironic given the controversy surrounding Mel in recent years, but as you get older you come to the sometimes heartbreaking reality that your favorite stars are *gasp* actual flawed and sometimes fucked up people. But, I digress. Gibson set a precedent of character in those early days as a grizzled, charming, comedic, and ferocious action star, which continued through his later years; Mad Max, Martin Riggs, Bret Maverick, William Wallace, Tom Mullen, Porter, Benjamin Martin, Hal Moore, and many more, all rang of his demeanor, sometimes more or less restrained. It was a glorious act to watch.
Then came a seven-year gap in acting. Part of that was due to directing the brilliant APOCALYPTO in 2006, but the other part was Mel’s public image being scraped against the wall on numerous occasions, forcing him into seclusion to confront his own demons before attempting to re-enter the Hollywood workforce. In many ways, his wild, erratic behavior kind of mirrored the persona he created onscreen, which doesn’t excuse any of it, but puts it in perspective. Mel was Mel, for better or for worse. Take offense or don’t. Hate him or love him. I think a line was drawn in the sand with Mel (pun intended, of course) after his private life explosion and either you were still a fan or you weren’t. For me, nothing had changed. Yeah, he fucked up and said and did some stupid shit, but nothing I’d oust his filmography over. I reserve those judgments for Cosby Show reruns.
So, yes, I’m on Team Mel. My bias is clear. And, with that in mind, his return to the genre and style of films that created the persona I’d come to love was like a welcome homecoming. GET THE GRINGO, the story of an American stuck in a Mexican prison, is both a pleasing action romp and a metaphorical journey for Gibson, as both an actor and a character. In GRINGO, Mel is Driver, a thief with a shaky moral compass, who crosses the U.S./Mexican border in an attempted getaway with millions of dollars in stolen cash, landing him in “El Pueblito” a very unique kind of prison where you’ll find a steady supply of guns, drugs, restaurants, shops, and even family members, all propagated with the flow of cash.
As Driver, Gibson is every bit the grizzled, wise-cracking hardass that we’ve come to know and love, but he’s using more of his wits than his fists, a sign of both wisdom and old age. But, that doesn’t stop him from taking action when action is needed and he’s more than up to the challenge, again in true Gibson fashion. Corruption runs rampant in the system; cops, prison officials, inmates, even a U.S. Embassy official. They’re all after one thing or another and, like YOJIMBO, Gibson’s Driver is the one link in the chain that tugs each nasty side against one another.
"Is this a prison, or the world's shittiest mall?” – Driver (Mel Gibson)
Problems arise when Driver meets a young boy (aptly named Kid) who exudes street smarts and is suspiciously protected by the prison guards. He also likes to bum cigarettes to feed his own habit and both he and Driver form an unlikely bond. Things get even deeper when Driver meets the Kid’s mom, who he is immediately smitten with, providing his otherwise compromising persona with a reason to care about something more than his own hide and a stack of greenbacks.
The hunt for the money that was in Driver’s possession when he was arrested is one of the main factors driving the plot, but there’s more to it than that as the cat-and-mouse maneuvering gets thicker and more personal as the film wears on. There are a number of confrontations that range from brutal to comical, never letting the film fall too far in one direction; it’s not a dark and gritty violent film, but rather an atmospheric caper with spurts of violence and chock full of colorful characters. In more ways than one it feels more akin to Gibson’s PAYBACK, featuring an uncompromising character (with a one-word name to boot) who is capable of both good and evil facing off with a number of enemies as he outwits them at every turn. In fact, if he were called Porter instead of Driver, GET THE GRINGO could easily be a sequel to PAYBACK.
"I was looking at it more from a story point of view. I mean basically at the end of the line, no matter how many producers, directors, actors jump in, you’re only doing one thing, telling a story, so what I like doing the best is going through the mind’s eye and reading it out with Stacy and Adrian whom I’d worked with before on “Apocalypto” when they were my 1st and 2nd ADs. And these guys know Mexico. And we just got into the research, from an idea that I had, and the more stuff we read on the Internet the more rich it got, because the world is so absurd. Incarceration south of the border is a different experience than here. There were no exaggerations in that film”. – Mel Gibson
GET THE GRINGO is simply a fun film. It’s beautifully shot with an insane amount of detail in its production design with a kitchy score and a series of payoffs that leave a satisfying conclusion in its wake. It’s not LETHAL WEAPON big in terms of action and it’s not depressingly dark like EDGE OF DARKNESS. It’s a well-balanced actioner that hits all the right marks for fans of Gibson or action flicks in general. Stripped of the controversy and given a wide release, I think GRINGO could’ve been one of Gibson’s bigger hits, but instead it’s the perfect “outsider film” for this period of his career and one that fits nicely in his overall resume.
Metaphorically, GET THE GRINGO feels like Gibson’s response to being ousted from mainstream Hollywood and his journey through it after being put in “movie jail.” With no one on his side and everyone against him or after him for one thing or another, Gibson must survive this harsh new environment and do whatever he can to maneuver his way out. And even if he escapes, he knows he’ll still be who he is, which is a testament to where he is now. Mel is Mel. He’s the gringo of Hollywood at this point and in many ways I kind of dig that. Some folks hold a grudge and can’t forgive, while others champion his return. Either way, Mel hasn’t given up and that tenacity keeps me a fan. If you’re like me, then GET THE GRINGO is both the return of Mel the actor and Mel the character that you missed in his big (small) screen absence and goes to show that when you’re down you can find your way back up. Even if you’re stuck in a crazy Mexican prison. Or Hollywood.
"Well, boys and girls. To the untrained eye it looks as if crime pays, doesn't it? But bear in mind, for guys with my particular set of karmic could-be's, there was bound to be a bump or two down the road. Ah, what the hell. I'm going to enjoy what's left of the summer...” – Driver (Mel Gibson)
There are plenty of cool moments in GET THE GRINGO, including a few shootouts, takedowns, and scraps, but the one that stands out is when a group of U.S. hitmen enter El Pueblito to take out Gibson’s Driver. Unaware and unprepared, Driver reacts to the situation just as you hope he would and gives us a great “Martin Riggs” kind of call to action that harkens back to his early action days. Beautifully shot and orchestrated, it’s a ballet of guns, blood, and explosions that make these kinds of films a blast to watch.
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|Extra Tidbit:||Mel's next directing the WWII film Hacksaw Ridge and just completed a starring role in Blood Father. Would you rather see more of his directing work or acting work (or both combined)?|