Director: Nash Edgerton
Cast: David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Harry Treadaway, Sharlto Copley, Thandie Newton, Yul Vazquez, Carlos Corona, Diego Cataño, Rodrigo Corea, Alan Ruck
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, violence and sexual content)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 3/9/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2018
There's something both admirable and off-putting about the elaborate plotting of Gringo, which depends on some questionable decisions, plenty of coincidences, and a heaping pile of situational irony. To reduce the plot of Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone's screenplay to a simple story is an unenviable task, but that is part of this job as a film critic. You, dear reader, want a basic idea of what happens in a movie, and I provide it. Well, to summarize this tale—which involves a fake kidnapping, a few real abductions, a sociopathic drug lord, some corporate espionage, and a lot of backstabbing—it's basically the story of a guy having a really, really bad couple of days in Mexico.
That story on its own is pretty enjoyable, especially since the poor guy is played by David Oyelowo, the classically trained British actor, who plays an American citizen, born in Nigeria and facing an existential crisis while, at the same time, being caught up in a series of criminal or extra-legal activities beyond his control—and even his understanding. Yes, just describing the character and his fundamental predicaments is filled with complications.
Much of the charm and a significant part of the effectiveness of Oyelowo's performance come from his wise decision to focus on the reactive side of his character. There's a lot underneath the surface of Oyelowo's Harold Soyinka, a man who was raised to play by the rules and to do the right thing. What did that get him, though? Here, we watch as basically improvises his way into a different way of behaving and living.
That's the character's through line—a sudden realization that being an upstanding member of society hasn't gotten him very far and his constant, conflicted attempts to readjust how he behaves after coming to this realization. He's not a bad guy, although he is surrounded by a fair number of bad men and women, who are much better adapted to living without any rules and doing the wrong thing for personal gain. The comedy comes from Harold's basic decency and his naïveté about the people around him. Even when trying to be a man who only looks out for himself, he can't help but assume that there's something like the real him—someone who plays by the rules and acts in a decent way—in everyone else.
The movie, though, doesn't just focus on Harold, and ultimately, that wider scope of characters becomes cumbersome. We're also introduced to Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), Harold's long-time friend and current boss at Richard's pharmaceutical company, and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron), the co-president of the company who might be even more ruthless than the already-pretty-ruthless Richard. The plot involves Harold, a middle manager at the company, accompanying Richard and Elaine to the company's pharmaceutical laboratory in Mexico. While there, Harold learns that his bosses are planning to merge with another company, that his own job will put on the chopping block, and that his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) has been having an affair.
Obviously, Harold is distraught, and after wondering the streets and finding a local hotel, he devises a plan to scam the company of millions of dollars. He fakes a kidnapping, knowing that the company has an insurance policy for such things. In the first of many things to go wrong, Richard informs Harold that he let the insurance policy expire to save some money. Meanwhile, a cartel leader known as "the Black Panther" (Carlos Corona), who has strong opinions about the Beatles, is actually planning to abduct Harold. The Panther wants the company's secret, definitely illegal-in-the-States formula for a marijuana pill.
All of this is manageable for the sort of half-thriller, half-comedy that the screenwriters and director Nash Edgerton are attempting. The complications and diversions keep mounting, though—from Richard's ex-special forces/current humanitarian brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), who's brought in to save Harold from his non-existent abductors, to Miles (Harry Treadaway), who's in Mexico to steal the marijuana pill for an unknown entity, and his unaware girlfriend Sunny (Amanda Seyfried). Of course, the stories start to overlap (although Miles and Sunny always seem unnecessary, even when they end up in Harold's sphere).
There's something decidedly off in every scene that doesn't involves Harold. There are fine performances beyond Oyelowo, with Theron reveling in playing a calculating manipulator and Copley toning down his usual shtick as the morally conflicted Mitch, but any time Harold isn't the focus, the movie loses its much-needed energy. There simply isn't much to these other characters to excuse drawing attention away from Harold. They actually drain the story of its humor at points, such as when Harold and Mitch have a theological debate in the middle of a scene of potential betrayal.
The tone here is erratic, and a lot of that has to do with the wildly inconsistent shifts between the various characters' stories (It comes as little surprise to learn that the movie was assembled by three editors). With Gringo, we're left appreciating the mechanics of Tambakis and Stone's screenplay—how these characters and coincidences play off each other—as well as Oyelowo's finely tuned performance. The movie, though, is so busy with characters, convolutions, and happenstance that it keeps us at a distance from the character and story that genuinely work.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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