Mel Gibson stars in Get the Gringo

Mel Gibson in Get the Gringo (Alliance Pictures)

A couple of weeks ago, we considered the strange case of Seeking Justice, a Nicolas Cage action movie going directly to video because, well, it wasn't very good and the distributor didn't have a lot of confidence in it. I should point out that Seeking Justice did get a limited run in the U.S. last spring, so really this was more of a judgment call on the part of the Canadian rights holder, Alliance Films. And it was probably the right call.

This week, though, Alliance sends another action title with an Oscar-winning star straight to disc; in this case, the release is even more ignominious because Get the Gringo premiered in the U.S. as a video-on-demand exclusive. Now, that shouldn't be shameful at all; VOD is rapidly becoming a very smart way for distributors to get niche pictures into the market at minimal expense, and most of the titles that premiere via this route are art-house offerings that might not be huge draws at the box-office.

(It's a lot easier to offer a movie like, say, Steven Soderbergh's four-hour, two-part epic Che -- one of the first pictures to demonstrate the appeal of the VOD platform versus a conventional theatrical run -- to 40 million homes than it is to screen it in 400 theatres in North America.)

But Get the Gringo is not an art-house movie. It's a Mel Gibson action comedy. And because Gibson is basically radioactive at this point, even the fact that Get the Gringo is pretty damn entertaining couldn't get it on a big screen.

Get the Gringo puts Gibson squarely in his comfort zone as an American crook called Driver, whose race for the border after a botched robbery ends with his loot confiscated by the dodgy authorities and his butt dumped into a Mexican prison town called El Pueblito. Like most of Gibson's action heroes, Driver's amoral acts are tempered by his highly developed sense of honour and grudging nobility, so of course this guy winds up bonding with a 10-year-old kid (Kevin Hernandez) with an enigmatic connection to the heavy who runs things at El Pueblito (Daniel Gimenez Cacho)... which, of course, leads to even more trouble.

If Gibson was looking for a lighter, goofier vehicle after the mechanical revenge story Edge of Darkness and the psychologically convoluted (and savagely misunderstood) drama of The Beaver, he couldn't have come up with a better picture than Get the Gringo. Well, maybe a fifth Lethal Weapon, but given that Warner Bros. wasn't even willing to put Gibson's face on the recent box set of that series, that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

Nope, he had to make it himself. In addition to starring in Get the Gringo, Gibson produced the movie himself, and co-wrote it with his hand-picked director Adrian Grunberg, who was the assistant director on Gibson's last directorial effort Apocalypto and a second-unit director on Edge of Darkness. Grunberg may not be the most accomplished filmmaker with whom Gibson has worked, but he finds a nice, antic tone that allows Driver's wackier moments to share the same space as the heavier stuff.

And honestly, it's nice to see Gibson coming off as charming and quick-witted in a film, which was something he hasn't really allowed himself to do in years. Neither Edge of Darkness nor The Beaver allowed him any lightness, and of course the man's public persona has been pretty loathsome for something like a decade now. And yeah, hints of that Gibson bleed through in Get the Gringo, which shares his fondness for cruelty and on-screen torture.

But mostly, Get the Gringo is an entertaining movie that lets Gibson play to his strengths. If Bruce Willis had made it, there's no reason it couldn't have had a buoyant theatrical run; the reviews would have been decent, and the audience is certainly out there. Instead, it's a Mel Gibson movie, and Mel Gibson is still toxic, so it has to settle for VOD in America and a straight-to-video debut here.

And really, that's a shame. Making decent movies is probably the only way Gibson will be able to rehabilitate himself, and if people can't see those movies easily, he might not have the chance to make many more. So there you go.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com