Outburst after outburst, toil after toil, and Mel Gibson incredulously plods on, albeit in less familiar forms. His last film, the criminally underrated The Beaver, was a box office flop, likely not just for its peculiar premise, but due to Gibsons much-publicised and seemingly never-ending array of personal demons. That his latest film, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, did not even secure American theatrical distribution instead opting for the Video-on-Demand route earlier this month is a worrying sign for the actors career, but controversy aside, pound-for-pound, he can still spit expletives and shoot guns with the best of his caste. No matter the criticisms people will have of Gibson the man, Gibson the actor will never be criticised for half-assing his way through an assignment. That the first sight we see of the actor is him decked out in a clown outfit, fleeing the cops in a frantic car chase, demonstrates how eagerly he throws himself into any and all roles. Gibson is Driver, an American bandit who winds up on the wrong side of the Mexican border, and is promptly thrown into a dilapidated cesspool of a prison. As one of the few gringos there, things are even tougher, and so he shacks up with a 10-year-old boy (Kevin Hernandez) and his mother (Dolores Heredia) in order to survive. While the debut feature of Adrian Grunberg who served as first assistant director on Gibsons Apocalypto and Edge of Darkness - certainly has no aspirations to Shakespeare, it does work as an unassuming fish-out-of-water comic actioner. This feels worlds away from the crime films we are used to, not only because the majority of the film takes place in a prison, but that it is a Mexican prison specifically. Here, the rules are a little different; authority comes from the inmates rather than wardens, and there is an entire infrastructure appended to this; families can come and live with an inmate, hookers are freely available, as are fairground rides, and for the privileged inmates of Cell Block A, a casino, too. So giddily surreal are these moments that they feel like a skewering of overblown, serious-minded TV shows like Prison Break and Oz. Gibson meanwhile girds it all together with some incredulous voiceover unoriginal perhaps which lets us know his steely persona has not faded despite the wealth of personal woes. Furthermore, as he fumbles around in a muddy toilet, looking to retrieve a gun, theres the dawning sense that Mel is completely, even unreasonably committed to what countless other actors would simply have phoned in. Perhaps the best compliment to pay Gibson and indeed, the film, is that we sense a little of the actors most beloved character, Lethal Weapon'sMartin Riggs,screaming to get out. The script co-written by Gibson, Grunberg and Stacy Perskie has more than a few zingers reminiscent of Shane Blacks coarsely funny work. There is also a potent sense of place felt here; Gibson spends most of time running around in sweat-strained shirts, with constant cigar smoke filling the screen. You can practically taste the Tequila. Unsurprisingly, Gibson carries the film as pretty much the only big name and face in it, though Peter Stormare - who seems to appear in just about every B-movie going these days and Bob Gunton make brief cameos as shady businessmen. The dynamic between Gibson and the young Hernandez meanwhile generates some pleasantly askew banter, and even though the trajectory of this would-be surrogate family is laughably obvious, the film is itself very much aware of this fact. Those expecting a rigorous devotion to set-pieces and action might wind up a little disappointed though. Grunberg makes us wait for it, but once we get there, Gibson punts grenades and guns the faceless foes down with an enthusiastic energy not befitting his age. Things do admittedly get a little grim in the later stages, but then by setting alone this was never a particularly pleasant tale, and so the film does not implode on the basis of tonal skittishness. It is still funny without being overly perverse or sadistic. How I Spent My Summer Vacation is impossibly low-key filmmaking through and through, somewhat appropriately given the ramshackle premise and tawdry setting. Granted, the digital look isnt very alluring at all and there is an unmistakable air of Gibson slumming it despite how fun he is to watch. The premise is pretty inconsequential, so the entertainment value really rests with seeing Gibson let loose as a foul-mouthed, exasperated old guy just wanting to get away. It offers no surprises, but it is a nicely told yarn with just enough irreverence from Gibson to make it worthwhile. I cannot imagine what compelled Mel Gibson to star in something like this, but I am glad that he did. How I Spent My Summer Vacation is in cinemas from Friday.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.