Get the Gringo [a.k.a. How I Spent My Summer Vacation] (2011; Adrian Grunberg) is the most Donald Westlake-like film that the late master mystery writer had absolutely nothing to do with.
The film is also an utter blast, one of the tightest and most fun action movies I’ve seen in a while.
Exciting, sleazy and well-plotted, it’s well worth a look—
Of course, it will help if you’re open-minded enough to separate Mel Gibson, the engaging and sardonic action movie star, from Mel Gibson, the batshit lunatic ubiquitous on the gossip pages.
During the course of a Really Big Score, a professional thief gets into an almost certainly fatal fix when he’s dumped into a nasty Mexican jail—and is left with nothing but his wits and his fists. Thankfully, both are strong.
First off, I prefer the title the film was made under, and released in the UK as: How I Spent My Summer Vacation.
To me, that is more evocative of the mood of sarcasm and giddy ultraviolence prevalent in the movie. Get the Gringo just sounds…stupid. Common. A title you slap on a piece of junk that’ll end up in the bargain bin at Duane Reade.
That said, I came to the film and watched it as How I Spent My Summer Vacation, and felt that its almost snide title was even more of a Westlake-like touch.
Gibson’s character, named Driver, is very much like one of the protagonists from Westlake’s stand-alone, more adventure-oriented novels, like High Adventure or Kahawa, in tone and behavior. These guys are professionals, but not as heartless as Parker, or as luckless as Westlake’s more comedic thief, Dortmunder.
(Under the pseudonym “Richard Stark,” Westlake wrote his very serious Parker novels and under his own name, he wrote most of his other work, including many very funny and highly recommended tales of John Dortmunder, the crook with the worst luck—and best success rate—in the world.)
Producer/co-screenwriter Gibson had previously made Payback, based on Westlake-as-Richard-Stark’s first “Parker” novel The Hunter (which was also the inspiration for John Boorman/Lee Marvin’s Point Blank).
So we know that Gibson had had at least some familiarity with the author’s work…
I’d like to think that after things had calmed down in Mel’s head after the last public meltdown, he hid on his gigantic ranch and read a bunch of Westlake paperbacks by the pool to get some ideas.
Driver is a great character, a ruthless fellow that’s hard not to like because he doesn’t really want to hurt anyone. Heck, he just wants to be left alone—but since he swiped $4m from a psychotic drug lord, that’s not happening.
The crowded jail is more like a small city, with everything for sale, where crime and criminality is absolutely normal, and survival is maintained through aggression and using your brain: “It’s about watching,” instructs Gibson to his preteen Mexican sidekick/protégé.
The flick shows its Westlake influence by concentrating on the protagonist’s smarts. Yes, he can beat someone to death or drive through a steel fence, but it is more important to Driver to observe, and plan, and plot.
Visually, How I Spent My Summer Vacation is a B-movie that looks like a collaboration between Don Siegel and Luis Bunuel: It looks like it was really shot inside some sleazy, shithole South of the Border slammer. The set is impressively detailed, and the movie is also aided by impressive camerawork throughout.
Director Adrian Grunberg was the assistant director on Apocalypto, and producer Gibson was wise in trusting him with the helmer’s seat. I look forward to Grunberg’s future work, and hope that he continues working in the action genre—I’d like to see what else he’s got in him.
Under its more mundane title, How I Spent My Summer Vacation is currently available on Netflix Streaming—watch it, amigo.
[Picture below is Mel at the beginning of the film--not sure if the mask is a tribute to Kubrick's The Killing (or A Clockwork Orange?)--but it is a nice touch.]