Sometimes small is better. There are times when all you want is a basic, straightforward action film that doesn’t require you to turn a blind eye to the rules of logic; one that doesn’t consider good action and decent characters to be mutually exclusive. How I Spent My Summer Vacation is that film. It’s not a blockbuster but it’s very entertaining and does what it sets out to do really well.

Mel Gibson plays an unnamed criminal who steals a few million from an American businessman and runs off to Mexico only to get caught by a couple of corrupt border police. The policemen take the money and throw Gibson in a jail that’s more of a shantytown surrounded by snipers than your classic cells-with-bars set-up. In there, he meets a young boy (Hernandez) who shows him the ropes and teaches him about the power hierarchy. Gibson adapts pretty well and starts to carve out a little niche for himself, until the robbed businessman sends some of his henchmen to find him and retrieve the stolen money. Gibson has to find a way to break out of jail, taking the kid, who’s about to have his liver stolen by the prison’s head inmate, and the kid’s mother (Heredia) with him. 

The main factor that pushes this film from average into surprisingly good is the decision to have the Mexicans speak in Spanish instead of accented English. A sizeable chunk of the film is subtitled which automatically gives the film a sense of reality and makes it so much easier to take the characters seriously. Add to it the City of God style visuals and the Latin soundtrack and you have a film that feels authentically Mexican. And even though the Mexican characters are mostly corrupt officers, criminals or dirt poor - sometimes all three - they’re not walking stereotypes; both due to the sheer variety of the characters and the acting. Even the criminals, who are basically everybody other than the kid, are not portrayed as one hundred percent evil; they’re given human sides and motives that shine a light on the logic behind their actions.

Gibson gives a pretty understated performance, biding his time until his character’s given a chance to let loose and show flashes of borderline insanity, but he’s thoroughly watchable whether he’s eavesdropping, pick pocketing, brandishing a gun or lobbing grenades. His charisma shines through and he turns his character into a criminal worth rooting for. And speaking of grenades, the film is big on violence though it hardly feels gratuitous. It has some pretty sweet, well filmed, action sequences - ones in which you can actually see what’s going on - and quite a few cool-guy-walking-away-from-explosion type shots, which while ridiculous, are still completely entertaining.  

Honestly, this film was a surprise. Not only is it far better than its marketing campaign lets on, but it’s genuinely entertaining. It’s a solid action film on all counts.