How I Spent My Summer Vacation is a return to form for many things. It’s a return to form for the action genre, unapologetic onscreen violence, dark black humour, simple and straightforward storytelling, and most encouragingly of all, for Mel Gibson. The film is one of the most refreshing I’ve seen this year, and it’s all about something which is increasingly missing in films as the years go on; star power. Personally, I’m bored of comic book or ‘young adult’ novels taking the box office by storm, each of them led by one-dimensional actors or A-listers under a mask or as a CGI creation. I miss the days of seeing the latest Mel Gibson film because, simply, it’s the latest Mel Gibson film.
At the height of his fame, he was box-office gold; no one else could have been Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, he took Shane Black’s screenplay and brought the character to life so perfectly that Riggs will always be remembered as one of the all-time great movie cops. Gibson has a charisma which is sorely missing from most leading males today; the twinkle in his eye when he delivers those killer lines added with a seemingly natural vulnerability which gave films such as Ransom, Maverick, Conspiracy Theory, and Signs their life and make them endlessly rewatchable. How I Spent My Summer Vacation deserves to be added to his long list of career highs.
Gibson is now out of favour in Hollywood because of some very public issues, but this review is not reviewing the man or his demons. His latest film should be reviewed on its merits alone. And the merits are numerous.
First of all, in a time where studios are cutting films to achieve 12A or PG-13 ratings, this is a refreshingly violent picture for anyone who misses the hard-hitting action pictures of the 1980 and 1990s. Due to the film being an Icon production (Gibson’s production company) and not released by a major studio, How I Spent My Summer Vacation has free reign on the graphic depictions of violence; a woman is tortured with electricity, a man’s toes a cut off (and we see this), a young boy is punched in the face, the same boy stabs himself in the kidney with a blunt instrument, and a huge body count is amassed in the 90 minutes. Like Gibson’s Icon produced The Passion of the Christ, this is not for the faint of heart.
The film isn’t just action and violence. At the film’s core is a relationship between Gibson’s unnamed character and a nine year old boy who lives in the Mexican prison where the film is set. Normally I despise scripts where children are involved in action films as for the most part they either cannot act or the film is toned down because of their involvement. In this picture, however, the nine year old (played by Kevin Hernandez) is as tough talking as Gibson and the film revolves around him and the violence that follows his every step. Their relationship feel real and there is something at stake in the film which keeps its pulse pounding from the very first scene.
For such an action-packed film, it is paced well; first time director Adrian Grunberg worked as a 1st and 2nd Unit director on some big films like Master And Commander, Man On Fire, and Traffic, and has chosen a good film to start with; it is low budget, low key, but has a major star carrying every scene. The film is dark and grimy and the prison scenes feel dirty and dangerous just looking at them, but the tone remains upbeat throughout thanks to the witty and zinging dialogue. The mix of all components works very well. Anyone who has seen Gibson’s 1999 Payback may feel this film is something like a prequel; I could image Porter (Gibson’s character in Payback) spending time in a Mexican jail and stealing from the other inmates and causing all kinds of carnage before escaping and making his way to Chicago where Payback’s action picks up. It’s not quite up to the quality of Payback (either versions) but for 2012, it’s the next best thing.
Ultimately, How I Spent My Summer Vacation is a triumph of star power and onscreen charisma. Casting this film which someone like Jason Statham or Clive Owen would render it just another disastrous action film, but thanks to Mel Gibson and his talent for such characters, the film is a low key success. It’s a shame it won’t see much of an impact at the box office and I wish it were made 10 years ago because it deserves to be a success.
Morbometer™: 7.8 OUT OF 10