Few actors seem to relish punishment like Mel Gibson, and in “Get the Gringo,” the writer-producer-star throws himself in a Mexican prison where quick wits and killer instincts are all that separate him from una muerte lenta y dolorosa. Originally titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” this tongue-in-cheek bad-guy-makes-good actioner is an ideal showcase for “Apocalypto” first a.d. Adrian Grunberg, a dynamo in directing this unapologetically twisted romp. A decade ago, distribs would’ve been eager to get Gibson in such a project; these days, the pic skips a domestic run, recouping abroad before bowing on-demand May 1.

As Gibson put it to auds after a preview screening, “A guy’s gotta suffer. You don’t just want a grease ride, do ya? There’s gotta be obstacles to overcome, testicles to remove.” Though he was talking about his pain-driven storytelling philosophy, the comment could just as easily apply to the penance showbiz expects before welcoming Gibson back to the fold. Still, what looks like a straight-to-VOD burial for the toxic star’s latest project could actually be a savvy move in the States, where pic will easily outgross “The Beaver” once auds realize they’re getting Mel in classic action-movie mode.

That much is clear within the first 60 seconds, as a pair of fugitives in clown costumes make a mad run for the Mexican border. It’s a surreal touch, never quite explained, other than to set the irreverent, free-wheeling tone right from the beginning: These angry cops mean it when they say they’re in pursuit of “two clowns,” and while his accomplice expires in the backseat, the getaway driver (Gibson) seeks a spot to jump the fence onto Tijuana soil … and into the custody of four corrupt Mexican officers all too eager to confiscate the cash and throw him in prison.

All the while, Gibson’s nameless character sarcastically narrates, implying that such outrageousness might reasonably qualify as the cost of doing business as a high-stakes criminal. The tone, inspired by film noir but amplified considerably for 21st-century auds, suggests “Lethal Weapon 3’s” battle-scar comparison scene, as if this flashback were being offered to explain a gnarly gash — in this case sustained while breaking back into the world’s craziest slammer, El Pueblito prison, based on a real correctional facility, in which inmates are allowed to bring their families to live with them behind bars.

That decision, to go back and rescue a pretty senorita (Dolores Heredia) and her endangered son (Kevin Hernandez), is what ultimately redeems Gibson’s self-serving character, who hardly minds when his accomplice dies in the first scene, and spends the rest of the movie manipulating others to his own ends. What “Get the Gringo” shares with the actor’s signature roles — Martin Riggs, Mad Max, even the way he played Hamlet — is the sense his character doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, which gives him an edge over everyone else onscreen, since nothing concerns them more than their own mortality.

Gibson felt compelled to tell this story after reading about El Pueblito, a reckless experiment in which drugs and firearms were permitted, and criminals had the run of the joint and even set up their own businesses, many of them illicit. Though presented with a Peckinpah-like old-school machismo, “Get the Gringo” could just as easily seem like science-fiction, so foreign are the rules in this south-of-the-border hellhole, where a bathrobe-wearing cartel boss (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) runs things on the inside — until an angry mobster (Peter Stormare) sends his goons to retrieve the money stolen in the opening scene.

However coarse Gibson and co-writers Grunberg and Stacy Perskie have made the script, tough-cookie Hernandez is the key to humanizing an experience in which the souls of every other character seem to be snared in barbed wire. After stealing scenes in “The Sitter” last year, the young actor is ready for this meatier role, one with grown-up demands, including a few cigarette-smoking scenes sure to upset those otherwise willing to forgive, say, a slo-mo shootout in which dozens of innocents are gleefully squibbed to death.

Gibson’s sensibility remains one that chuckles at carnage and sees torture as the most effective way to ratchet up audience sympathies, but still doesn’t take itself so seriously that the actor can’t poke fun at himself — or old friend Clint Eastwood in an especially amusing impersonation. Gibson knows how to play to the camera, and Grunberg is savvy enough to maximize what the star gives, spinning a slick package around the crazy scenario.

Production values are tops, with special kudos to the team that recreated El Pueblito in a whitewashed Veracruz prison not far from where Gibson and Grunberg made “Apocalypto.”

Get the Gringo

  • Production: A DirecTV release of an Icon presentation of an Icon production. Produced by Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, Stacy Perskie. Executive producers, Mark Gooder, Vicki Christianson, Len Blavatnik, Ann Ruark. Directed by Adrian Grunberg. Screenplay, Grunberg, Mel Gibson, Stacy Perskie.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Benoit Debie; editor, Steven Rosenblum; music, Antonio Pinto; music supervisor, Howard Paar; production designer, Bernardo Trujillo; art director, Jay Aroesty; costume designer, Anna Terrazas; sound (Dolby Digital), Santiago Nunez; sound designer, Benjamin L. Cook; supervising sound editors, Kami Asgar, Sean McCormack; re-recording mixers, Kevin O'Connell; stunt coordinators, JJ "Loco" Perry, Balo Bucio; special effects coordinator, Alejandro Vazquez; visual effects supervisors, Kevin Lingenfelser, Alan Munro; visual effects, Furious FX, Sofia; assistant director, Javier Clave; casting, Vickie Thomas. Reviewed at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, April 18, 2012. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 96 MIN.
  • With: With: Mel Gibson, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Jesus Ochoa, Roberto Sosa, Dolores Heredia, Kevin Hernandez, Fernando Becerril, Jose Montini, Peter Gerety, Patrick Bauchau, Mayra Serbulo, Gerardo Taracena, Mario Zaragoza, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Peter Stormare, Scott Cohen, Bob Gunton, Dean Norris. (English, Spanish dialogue)