Halfway through Gringo, STX and Amazon’s new drug trade action-comedy, Harold Soyinka, speaking through his Nigerian accent, confides in a kind-hearted fellow tourist that the world has turned upside down. Of course, by that point in the movie, it’s Harold’s entire life which has been turned upside down. While in Mexico for a visit to a factory supplying drugs to the Chicago-based pharmaceutical/medical marijuana company he works for, he learns his bosses (Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron) plan to sell the company and cut him out of the deal, his wife (Thandie Newton) is leaving him, and he’s thousands of dollars in debt. When he tries to stage his own kidnapping to ransom his bosses for insurance money it blows up in his face and results in him getting kidnapped for real.
But, thanks to the kindness of a couple of strangers, he manages to survive long enough to reflect on where exactly his life went wrong. Played quite endearingly by classically trained, British talent David Oyelowo, Soyinka emigrated to America in pursuit of the kinds of riches which await those who work hard and follow the rules, or so his father promised. All he found was injustice, personal betrayal, and the inescapable feeling that he’s been cheated out of a better life by a corrupt system that rewards amorality. Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), the sweet, unassuming tourist sitting across from him when he has this epiphany pushes back on his cynicism, arguing, quite simply, that not everyone wants or needs to have multiple houses, boats and rapper-style bling to be happy.
She smiles, encouragingly, and he smiles back, not entirely convinced but touched by her sincerity.
Harold is, of course, immediately kidnapped again as soon as Sunny tells him she thinks things are looking up for him. Hilarity, as they used to say in trailers, ensues.
It’s but a passing moment in a film heavy on incident, but it’s also a hint at the better version of Gringo which is too strangled by the star powers of its own producers to ever fully get out. Buried somewhere deep inside of Gringo’s script is an endearing story about a sweet, but gullible everyman whose life sucks so much that being captured in Mexico is a step up for him. The world around him is crazy, filled with Beatles-quoting drug cartel capos, agnostic mercenaries (Sharlto Copley) who dabble on the side in humanitarian relief work, and hedonistic, asshole corporate bosses who look at Gordon Gekko and think, “Like that, but much, much bigger and more ruthless.” It’s up to him to decide what kind of person to be in a world like that, and observing Oyelow’s comic exasperation is a revelation, largely because we didn’t he had this in him since he’s only ever been known for dramatic roles before now.
The problem is Gringo, which began its life four years ago as a script which made its way to director/stunt coordinator Nash Edgerton and then to his brother Joel and friend Charlize Theron, overloads the story with far too many subplots and extraneous characters. It loses track of Harold by returning back to Chicago to hit the same exact point over and over again, specifically that Joel and Charlize’s characters are monsters, willing to screw over anyone for a buck and completely ignorant to the plight and/or cultures of others. Their one-note cartoonishness has its moments, but it gets old fast, with Theron practically mustache-twirling as she spits out profane put-downs and empty asides like, “Fat people are so funny.”
A little of that can go a long, long way, yet Gringo keeps circling back to them.
From a film business standpoint, it’s understandable. They are bigger stars than Oyelowo, and Theron’s name helped them get funding. Plus, Joel and Theron each looked at this as an opportunity to say something about the current state of the world, especially since parts of the movie were actually filmed in Mexico right as the Trump campaign was making hay with its promises of building a wall.
So, we are supposed to hate these paper-thin villains and like Harold, which we do. It just grows so repetitive that it quickly feels like the film would have been far better served with only occasional appearances from Edgerton and Theron in favor of a renewed focus on Harold’s alternating buddy cop pairings down in Mexico. Also, either give Seyfried more to do as the unwitting girlfriend to a drug mule or don’t have her and her boyfriend in the movie at all.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Needed about 70% more of David Oyelowo, either 40% more of Amanda Seyfried or none of her at all, and around 80% less of Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton.
Sidenote: I suck at math.
Buried somewhere inside of Gringo is a solid madcap comedy about a stranger in a strange land and his personal epiphany about what it means to be a good person in a corrupt time. They just lost track of that movie with too many subplots, extraneous characters, and Theron and Edgerton camping it up as unfunny cliches of asshole, corporate Americans.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- SPOILER WARNING: There is a final comeuppance for Thandie Newton’s character which is needlessly mean-spirited.
- Paris Jackson is in this movie, albeit in a very small role. Michael Jackson’s daughter, it turns out, has some decent acting chops. She’s only in one scene, but she leaves enough of an impression that it will be interesting to see her in more movies down the road.