After the recent Joe Eszterhas furore (and all the other furores) surrounding Mel Gibson, we went into his latest film hoping that we could put all our problems with the troubled star aside for 90 minutes and just enjoy his new film. With a different title (Get the Gringo) and a very limited release in the States, could How I Spent My Summer Vacation be a hidden gem?
The film starts with the nameless Driver (Gibson) gunning it for the Mexican border with a car full of money. When he crashes into Mexico, the crooked local cops take his haul and throw him into “El Pueblito”, a prison that functions as a small, violent town. Can he figure out how to survive and get his money back before he’s either killed by the inmates or the vicious gangsters that he stole from?
Things get off to a good start with a deadpan voice-over lamenting the man in a clown costume spitting blood in slow-motion at the camera. The tone is set for a darkly comic, violent film. But given that’s what they’re going for, it’s a shame that the script (co-written by Gibson) gives its lead character such an easy ride. Gibson wisecracks and connives his way through the film but there’s never any real sense of danger, at least to him. While there are some quite shockingly violent moments, the tone’s so inconsistent that it’s difficult to know whether we’re supposed to be laughing or not.
And we probably are, as the film is often quite funny. Gibson gives a good turn while never really breaking type, and he has good chemistry with the street-smart, cigarette-smoking kid (Kevin Hernandez) that lives in the prison/village with his fiercely protective mother (Dolores Heredia). The kid’s being kept around by Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho), the gangster who runs the prison, because he shares the same blood type needed for Javi’s imminent liver transplant. All this is presented with a wry, cynical sense of humour that never quite settles comfortably enough to be convincing. The film either needs to be a lot darker or a lot wackier. As it is, it’s all over the place.
There are some funny moments and Heredia and Hernandez make a very strong impression with the best-written characters. But, fatally for a dark comedy, a lot of the gags fall dreadfully flat. The narration aims for neo-noir and misses the mark (despite actually nailing it during the opening scene). It’s not a total disaster but the inconsistent tone kills it.
How I Spent My Summer Vacation flip-flops too often between dark and wacky and it can’t quite decide whether it wants to have a heart or not. Entertaining in places, but it’s a bit of a mess.