‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ review

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Director Adrian Grunberg’s darkly comic How I Spent My Summer Vacation sees troubled star Mel Gibson outshone in a claustrophobic action flick about a man lost in translation.

Gibson plays hardened criminal Driver (we are never told his real name, seemingly in a bid to reflect cooler films with a nameless titular character) who winds up on the wrong side of the justice system when he crashes his car on the Mexican border in a botched getaway.

Corrupt cops send him to El Pueblito, the worst prison in Mexico, in the hope that he’ll rot there. Driver soon finds himself battling for his freedom and his life with only a chain-smoking ten-year-old boy as an ally.

Aesthetically the film excels. El Pueblito is lit with sickly green and yellow lighting and perma-sweaty inmates, providing a stark contrast to a plush American property headquarters later on in the film. The dramatic moments are hard hitting, notably an all out fire-fight between some of Driver’s old pals and the prison’s big fish; inmates dropping like greasy, bloody flies regardless of gender or age. You truly believe this is the worst prison anywhere, let alone Mexico.

A plot development involving a poor Clint Eastwood impression, a couple of grenades and an Ocean’s Eleven style prison breakout are the only far-fetched, ridiculous moments in an otherwise surprisingly gritty film.

While Gibson has been pitched as the hero, the highlights actually come in the form of his co-stars. Daniel Gimenez Cacho is suitably slimy as Javi, El Pueblito’s desperately ill head honcho, ordering murders without a second thought. His reason for keeping Driver’s pre-teen partner-in-crime alive is also chilling.

Dolores Heredia shines as Driver’s mandatory love interest and the boy’s jailbird mother, both smoulderingly sassy and inwardly vulnerable at the same time. Roberto Sosa’s Carnal more than lives up to his name.

But it’s Kevin Hernandez’ facety, world-weary turn as Driver’s pint-sized penitentiary pal that leaves the biggest impression. You’ll want this boy to be okay and you’ll route for Driver to succeed purely to save this one boy.

That’s not to say Mel puts in a bad performance though. The Lethal Weapon star’s comedic timing is as sharp as ever – his reaction to nearly being shot in the head at point black range rose one of the biggest laughs – but he doesn’t quite convince as a man who has been in and out of prison, which is astonishingly ironic. Maybe Josh Brolin should have been given a shot?

Unceremoniously released straight to video-on-demand in America as Get the Gringo, How I Spent My Summer Vacation isn’t Gibson’s best action effort, but it’s wickedly funny in places and doesn’t sacrifice substance for style. A refreshing watch.

Released in UK cinemas on Friday 11th May 2012 by Icon.

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