Punch & Judy, donkey rides, sandcastles and candy floss are in short supply in Adrian Grunberg’s grimy and darkly comic thriller.
This isn’t how you spent your summer holiday, or indeed would want to: banged up in a Mexican jail, fighting for your life against the drug-riddled dregs of society.
A disconcertingly jaunty title epitomises the curious mood swings of Grunberg’s film, which marks his directorial debut.
The tone careens from graphic violence to black comedy via a tense game of cat and mouse in the crowded inner sanctum of the jail.
It speaks volumes that the opening image is a dog cocking its leg: the script, co-written by Grunberg, Stacy Perskie and leading man Mel Gibson, commits a similar act of desecration with our preconceptions.
Gibson embraces the twisted humour in his droll running commentary that addresses us as “boys and girls” and passes scathing judgment on everyone he meets.
When his money-grabbing anti-hero first staggers into Mexico’s most notorious prison, El Pueblito, he stares aghast at the hustle and bustle of trade sanctioned by the guards.
“Is this a prison... or the world’s nastiest mall?” he growls, surveying the various shops which have sprung up behind bars, offering prisoners every conceivable amenity, including narcotics.
“Make tracks to the smack shack, where business is always booming,” deadpans our laconic narrator.
As jingles go, it’s quite catchy.
We first glimpse the veteran thief known as Driver (Gibson) behind the wheel of his getaway car dressed as a clown, an accomplice coughing up blood in slow motion in the back seat.
Nearby are two bags containing millions of dollars pilfered from short-tempered mobster Frank (Peter Stormare).
With the police in hot pursuit, Driver elects to crash on the Mexican side of the border, where the local cops pocket the cash and throw their only living suspect into El Pueblito – a petri dish of festering human life.
A tender bond develops between Driver, a 10-year-old urchin (Kevin Hernandez) and the boy’s ballsy mother (Dolores Heredia).
It transpires the tyke has the same rare blood type as cartel boss Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), who runs operations inside the prison, and is therefore a viable liver donor.
Needless to say, Driver isn’t thrilled about anyone removing organs from his pint-sized sidekick.
'How I Spent My Summer Vacation' has its moments, including some uproarious one-liners and a breathless adrenaline-fuelled shootout.
The fractious relationship between Driver and the boy provides a hook for the energetic set pieces, briskly directed by Grunberg, who struggles to mesh the gore, including an exploding eyeball, and macabre humour that sticks up two fingers to political correctness.
Gibson puts aside off-screen personal traumas to play his grizzled gringo with roguish charm.
We’re almost won over.
Star Rating: 3/5