GIVEN THE FLURRY of headlines that have followed him, it's almost impossible to watch Mel Gibson on screen without prejudice or suspension of disbelief. More famous than ever for all the wrong reasons (with those ugly allegations of abuse and anti-Semitism writ large), Gibson's attempts at rehabilitating his image in the past few years have seemed destined to stumble, regardless of their quality or intent.
It's surprising, then, after last year's disappointing oddity – via Gibson's most ardent supporter in Hollywood, Jodie Foster – to watch this superior tale, set among Mexico's notorious El Pueblito prison compound. Harking back to classic, watchable Gibson fare, the film almost recalls the actor in his heyday.
Here, Gibson plays career criminal Driver, who, after crossing the Tex-Mex border with $US4 million of mobster cash in the boot of a getaway car, is thrown in jail. Driver is the type of anti-hero Gibson has played so well in the past - albeit an older, grizzlier version.
There follows a touching relationship with an imprisoned nine-year-old boy (and his mother), whose terrible secret heavily colours Driver's motivations once he has quietly sussed out the prison compound, which is more akin to a seedy border town than a jail. A lurid subplot involving a kidney transplant (for a drug kingpin) adds some gravitas to proceedings.
Interestingly, El Pueblito (the little village) was a real facility set up by the Mexican government, ostensibly to offer inmates a more humane method of doing time. But what began as a radical experiment inevitably degenerated into a sleazy, drug-peddling den of iniquity, where money and guns spoke louder than prison wardens and solitary confinement. Gangs ruled the roost, down to the water supply (if you fell out with the Mob, you were really doomed). Shut down a decade ago, the prison compound is effectively re-created just a stone's throw away from its original locale, near Tijuana. To call it grim would be kind.
Like Gibson, Mexico hasn't enjoyed much good press in recent years, so it seems apt that the two forces come together in this gritty and rather violent directorial debut of one-time Gibson assistant director Adrian Grunberg.
– the original title, , was thankfully ditched – is an often tense, sometimes brutal view inside a jail populated by Mexicans and those Americans who fall foul of corrupt Mexican police (the film does make sure to point out that Mexican police are no worse than their US counterparts).
Ultimately, the burning question is: will anyone go and see it? has been denied a theatrical release in the US – a once-unthinkable scenario for Gibson, previously one of the world's biggest box-office drawcards – but has opened in a number of key territories overseas, including Israel.
Given his last two roles (as a troubled alcoholic father in and a crook seeking redemption in this movie), one wonders whether Gibson is making some sort of an appeal for calm and reconciliation.
Gibson certainly has a friend in Grunberg: an assistant director who's worked on several of the star's previous outings (, ) and here steps into the director's chair (he co-wrote the tale with his boss).
When I spoke with him recently, Grunberg was philosophical about his film's chances of success. Gibson, he believes, has not been given a fair go by the US media. The rest of the world, he says, simply wants to see him back on screen.
''In Argentina, in Spain, in Mexico, they don't care about his personal issues,'' he said. ''Of course he's a polarising character, but I have a feeling the bad publicity is mainly in the US. What can I say? I feel lucky and blessed having worked with him. I've known him for a bunch of years now - I have only good things to say about him. And I'm Jewish.''
Whether there's an agenda underpinning the film or not, Gibson is clearly back in his element here, with plenty of wind still in his sails. It's rather refreshing to see his talent is intact.
Whether mainstream audiences can forgive and forget is another matter, but is nevertheless a solid slice of Gibson fare.
Critical Rating: 7/10.
GET THE GRINGO is now showing in cinemas.
First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age.