Among literary critics, a controversy has been raging tepidly over what purpose reviewing might hold in this age of crowdsourcing. Why rely upon one fallible pundit’s thumbs up or thumbs down when you can access the wisdom of crowds by averaging dozens of ratings, whether elite or mass?
As a 21st-century movie reviewer, I’ve always found this catcall hard to dismiss, which is why I try to only write about movies where I can explain something more interesting than whether I liked it or not. While I take a backseat to no one in admiration of my own taste, I have to admit that the aggregation sites are reasonably reliable.
Consider Mel Gibson’s new crime movie Get the Gringo, which debuted in Israeli theaters back in March but is finally out now on Netflix and DVD here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Mel plays a California bank robber similar to his tough-guy character in 1999’s Payback. With a car full of cash, he makes a run for the Mexican border like an outback O. J., only to find a large fence has recently been erected. After crashing through, he’s sentenced to Tijuana’s hilariously vibrant El Pueblito prison, a pre-apocalyptic wasteland reminiscent of Bartertown, the free-market dystopia in Mel’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Get the Gringo enjoys a solid 80% positive rating among 51 critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.1 score from over 30,000 viewers on IMDb.com.
Those numbers seem right to me. Get the Gringo is efficient, funny, quick, and thoroughly entertaining. It’s not quite Lethal Weapon or Road Warrior, but it’s far above the average 2012 film and wittily recapitulates Mel’s career.
So what’s the point of reviewing competent commercial films such as Get the Gringo?
Well, who else is writing about it? A glance at its Rotten Tomatoes page shows that Get the Gringo has not been reviewed by any “Top Critics” outside of the two trade papers.
In other words, Gibson has been more or less blacklisted by the media.
As you may recall from the dozens of documentaries about the horrors of Hollywood refusing to work with communists during the 1950s, blacklisting is the worst sin imaginable. But this is totally the opposite of the bad kind of blacklisting because, you see, Gibson is not a Stalinist.
Which I guess is too bad, because Mel Gibson is almost the only figure in Hollywood engaging imaginatively with a vast topic of ever-growing importance in American life: Mexico.
In this century, that nation of 150 million—35 million of whom live in the US—has receded from the American imagination. Although Mexico has been undergoing a horrifyingly bizarre civil war just over the border for the last half-dozen years, the whole country strikes well-bred white Americans as…inappropriate. Mexican mass-market films, such as El Infierno, 2010’s hit satire about the narco war, almost never get released here. Heck, Iranian movies are more likely to make it into theaters in Los Angeles.
A half-century ago, Mexico—violent, superstitious, and accommodating—fascinated certain American filmmakers. The chief remnant of this old breed, formerly found widely among Catholics (for example, John Ford and John Wayne) and Californians (Sam Peckinpah) is Gibson.
The movie that set Gibson on the road to press purgatory, 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, was hugely popular with Mexican-Americans, perhaps because it was shot in the cinematic equivalent of the Counter-Reformation Baroque style of Mexico’s greatest churches. Moreover, it touched upon that Mexican fascination with suffering, torture, and sacrifice that pre-dates Columbus.
Few apologized to Gibson when The Passion didn’t cause the predicted pogroms. Never having to say you’re sorry is one of the benefits of not “losing control of the media,” to quote Sarah Silverman in her 2005 movie Jesus Is Magic.
Gibson next directed Apocalypto, with an all-Amerindian cast speaking Mayan. This 16th-century period piece outraged various blue-eyed ethnic activists over its insensitive depiction of pre-Columbian civilization. But there are reasons the native masses converted to Catholicism, although sometimes the old death cults pop up again, such as in the recent renaissance of Santa Muerte worship among the narcos. (When is somebody going to make that into a big-budget movie? Even Oliver Stone wouldn’t touch Santa Muerte in his Savages.)
Get the Gringo is set in one of those staggering Latin American penal shantytowns (like the jail in Hector Babenco’s Carandiru, only funnier) where the prisoners can’t leave but anybody else can enter for a modest fee. Since crime is the mainstay of the local economy, prison is the hottest ticket in town. El Pueblito held 5,000 inmates, plus as many wives, children, whores, shopkeepers, taco-stand operators, realtors, cable-TV installers, carnival-ride operators, and gangsters holing up from the law as cared to bribe their way in.
This factual prison epitomizes the Mexican entrepreneurial knack: “You can buy anything, except your way out.” As Mel’s character notes on a Sunday when the prison yard fills up with even more small children running amok amid the (literally vibrant) pup tents set up by entrepreneurs for conjugal visits: “It’s visiting day, so take the whole family to the crappiest place on Earth.”
Was El Pueblito’s seething Hobbesian community a triumph of the human spirit or a lesson about where America is headed?
Who knows? All that Mel knew ten years ago when he read about how the Mexican army had to send in 2,000 armed soldiers to shut down the prison is that it would make a great setting for a Mel Gibson movie.