Back to familiar haunts for Mel Gibson in How I Spent My Summer Vacation (review)

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation, movie
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: more a busman's holiday than exciting new ground for Mel

While the trailer for How I Spent My Summer Vacation showed more promise than Mel Gibson’s recent ventures, it alone was unlikely to catapult the fallen star back to his glory days. How I Spent My Summer Vacation is the work of an exhausted actor, who is fresh out of luck and new ideas, but it’s far from a disaster.

Gibson plays a streetwise career criminal and although it’s never clear what exactly his area of specialty is, it is made explicit where he learnt his various ‘skills’ – the US army. This of course recalls one of Gibson’s most famous characters; Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon, who was a solider in an elite task force during Vietnam, before he became a police officer with nothing to lose. Gibson’s character has many names during the film, from Bozo to Reginald T Barnes, but we’re never told what his real name is. IMDB lists Gibson’s character as ‘Driver’ (as in the driver), but for all intents and purposes, it might as well be Porter – but more on that later.

The film begins with Driver speeding away from the US Border Patrol, after a big score – watch-out for a cameo from Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, in a similar role. The car crashes through the Mexican border and Driver is promptly arrested and marched-off to the worst prison in Mexico, although not before having his loot stolen by corrupt police officers. From here Porter – I mean Driver – makes an unlikely alliance with a nine-year-old boy and must battle to survive in this den of iniquity, and all while attempting to discover who has his stolen money and how to escape.

Everything about How I Spent My Summer Vacation is all very familiar and it’s almost impossible to see it as anything other than a spiritual sequel to Gibson’s 1999 film, Payback. In fact, I’d be so bold as to retitle the film, Payback II: South of the Border. The similarities are endless, from Porter’s grizzled, surly attitude, to a scene where Driver ‘makes’ the criminals in a crowd, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to pick pockets, he’s always one step ahead of everybody else, then there’s the bungling crims, and the corrupt and ineffectual police forces (both Mexican and American).

The comparisons don’t stop there. The film features a crime overlord whose preferred method of contact is over Skype, just like Payback’s Bronson (Kris Kristofferson), who likes to keep out of the dirtier aspects of the ‘business’, choosing instead to communicate via telecommunications ie removed from the ‘action’. The crime overlord in How I Spent My Summer Vacation is played by Peter Stormare (who recently starred in the overlooked Lockout) and it’s later revealed that he works out of Chicago, which is the city run by ‘the syndicate’, in Payback. Should I go on?

Fortunately, I’m rather fond of Payback – although not so much the director’s cut – so while the film was predictable and a little too reliant upon Gibson’s grizzled narration, it was still rather enjoyable. There’s one plot point involving Driver’s past which is slightly fumbled, pop to the toilet at the wrong moment and you’ll miss a vital connection at the film’s conclusion – and to be honest, even the trained eye could miss the relevance of this allusion (to Driver’s past).

I did have some concerns that How I Spent My Summer Vacation might flirt with xenophobia, in the same manner as Taken, but I was relieved to see it didn’t. However, whether you are a fan of Payback or not, this is clearly a cynical attempt to recapture some of the actor’s popularity, by recycling a tried and tested formula.

To give Gibson his dues, it does kind of work, but perhaps the wisest use of his time should be spent attempting to recapture some of the magic he displayed directing Apocalypto, behind the camera and away from the limelight.