It's tough to consume Mel Gibson's latest action vehicle without a tinge of melancholy.
Mel Gibson is a man who, over the last couple of years, has experienced the recurring problem of having his various racially-motivated tirades recorded on tape for all to witness. It has meant that, to put it lightly, the lustre of his star has diminished.
In fact, the star has already exploded and reformed, and what we're left with is an indeterminate gaseous mass whose past glory flickers into life occasionally, only to be seen by those staring at the right time and in the right direction.
It's tough to consume How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Mad Mel's latest starring vehicle, without a tinge of melancholy, the idea that this is a one of those intermittent flickers of greatness rather than a full-blown affirmation of regret and rehabilitation. Shorn of baggage, the film is a noirish tortilla western that marshals its reference points, action set pieces and ripe dialogue exchanges with a scuzzy élan that places it a decent notch above recent genre outings.
The film opens as a clown-masked Mel (did he really require one?) is making a dash to the border with duffel bags stashed with bloodied banknotes. Managing to ram his way across to Tijuana, the corrupt local constabulary decide to take the cash for themselves and inter Mel, whose screwloose, Martin Riggs-like character remains unnamed, in hellish prison-cum-barter town, El Pueblito.
Lorded over by an ailing, moustachioed kingpin who needs a liver transplant stat, Mel not only has to work out how he can get out of this rancid pit, but how he can save the friendly cigarette smoking nipper who looks set to be sacrificed for his internal organs.
The pitiless, self-serving characters and the less-than-cheery depiction of Mexican culture and politics recall Robert Rodriguez in his El Mariachi pomp, though it's been a long, long time since RR has made a movie that's as sincere and robust as this one.
There are allusions to other directors and their work, notably Sergio Leone in Mel's quiet, man-with-no-name renegade (he even makes a crank call pretending to be Clint Eastwood), and Sam Peckinpah, in a blood-splashed, slo-mo shootout that arrives mid way. Yet it's never to the detriment of reeling off an entertaining action yarn: Here, the story comes first, references are merely the slick embellishments. With RR, you feel the priorities are the other way around.
Also of note is the hyper grimy production design of the prison, annunciated by cinematographer Benoît Debie's gliding camera. It's interesting to note that Debie shot Gaspar Noé's two previous films – Irreversible and Enter the Void – and with this he confirms his preturnatural gift for floating through crowds or down corridors and allowing his camera to soak up the (usually revolting) detail along its grim journey.
In terms of seeing this as Mel Gibson movie, you can't help but feel that over-zealous biographers will be able to let the cod psychoanalytical musings run wild with this and his previous film, The Beaver.
But where The Beaver came across like an attempt to placate and rationalise his midlife drift into antisocial crankdom, this serves as a hearty reminder of the charismatic Mel of yore. It offers a celebration of the bad guy you can get behind.
Hmm, this one's going direct to on demand in the US. Is that because of the film or its star?
Ninety minutes in the company Mel Gibson in which he doesn't stare direct to camera and call you an f'ing C has got to be a plus.
A superior genre effort, even if you its chances of setting the box office on fire are less than zero.