After failing to win over audiences as a latter day, burnt-out Jim Henson figure in The Beaver, Mel Gibson returns to more comfortable territory in the funny and surprisingly hard-edged prison comedy-actioner, How I Spent my Summer Vacation.

Narrating the action via a wry, seen-it-all-before voice-over, Gibson plays a career criminal who, in the opening scene (and dressed in a clown costume), is giving chase to both Mexican and US police as he straddles the border, following a robbery which has left him with million dollars of Mob money. Caught by the corrupt arm of that neighbouring law enforcement, he’s promptly dispatched to El Pueblito, a tough-as-nails prison village which wouldn’t look out of place in the post-apocalyptic landscapes he roamed as Mad Max.

In there, he meets a precocious, chain-smoking 10 year-old who is being mysteriously protected by the facility’s criminal rulers. Becoming a twisted surrogate father figure to the young chap, he attempts to survive in his lawless surroundings whilst also figuring out how to get his money back and escape.

While How I Spent my Summer Vacation ticks all the boxes  for fans of testosterone-heavy, shoot-em’ up cinema, it’s further elevated by placing the action within a truly unique setting and by a great star turn by its co-writer and producer.

With the maelstrom of tittle-tattle controversy surrounding Gibson’s personal life (and let’s face it, his actions should have remained a private matter) it’s easy to forget how good the actor can be with the right material. Looking a little more beaten and weathered than usual, Gibson’s screen presence hasn’t diminished one bit, and it’s nice to see those recent off-screen incidents haven’t resulted in him acquiescing to the Hollywood hypocrisy machine and tapping into a gentler side. That volatile persona which served him so well in the early Lethal Weapon films is very much evident here, and the film is all the better for it.

It’s also far darker than the wacky comedy the trailer would have you believe. First-time director (and veteran AD) Adrian Grunberg is extremely  adept at staging the bloody action, and a violent shoot-out midway through (where the innocent body count keeps piling up) is akin to how Peckinpah may have done things if the censors had been more relaxed back in his era.

Aided by some fine work by Gasper Noe’s DP Benoît Debie, Grunberg brings the location to lurid, vivid life, and the self-sufficient penal colony (makeshift kids tents have been installed for sleazy congenial visits) has that similar run-down vibrancy which characterised the favelas setting of Fernando Meirelle’s City of God.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film begins to sag and lose some of its character when Gibson leaves that setting later on to perform an elaborate hit for the villains. Fortunately, it manages to regain its footing towards the end, where his character’s race-against-the clock prison re-entry presents an exciting, if credibility stretching, conclusion.

Gibson’s waning star power is very much evident over in the States where the film has gone straight to VOD (having been lumbered with the unimaginative and insipid title, Get the Gringo), but How I Spent my Summer Vacation is fully deserving of a big-screen release. Do yourself a favour and ignore the baggage associated with its A-list star. If you can, an entertaining evening awaits you.