Gringo‘s problems stem from it trying too hard to be the kind of movie its makers have seen done better. It’s doing its best to give off a studiously crazy/ frenetic tone, something accentuated by Christophe Beck’s self-consciously quirky score. Throwing David Oyelowo’s straight-edged pharmaceutical rep into the path of Mexican cartels and hitmen, Nash Edgerton’s second feature is “one of those”, the latest in a seemingly unremitting stream of low-budget hit-and-miss crime affairs, peppy enough to attract a supporting cast working for scale, but lacking the personality to stick in the mind for very long.
I suspect Gringo came to Edgerton’s attention via brother Joel (who also appears, naturally); the latter first worked with writer/producer Anthony Tambakis on Warrior (Tambakis and Edgerton also rewrote the Jane Got a Gun screenplay), although the idea for the movie came from Matthew Stone (Big Trouble, Intolerable Cruelty and Destiny Turns on the Radio, the latter boasting the dubious and rarely repeated distinction of featuring Quentin Tarantino as the lead character).
From the poster, you’d think this was a lame pot comedy, but the marijuana element (an attempt to get the drop on an increasingly legal market via patented pill Cannabax) is mercifully restrained; it’s merely the spark for the plot.
This takes in the cartel that Promethium Pharmaceuticals presidents Richard Rusk (Joel-E) and Elain Markinson (Charlize Theron) have been selling to in order to improve their cashflow; with a prospective merger, they now intend to cut them off. There’s also the drug mule (Harry Treadaway) charged with bringing the product back to synthesise, accompanied by his girlfriend Sunny (Amanda Seyfried). And, most importantly Harold Soyinka (Oyelowo), oblivious to his firm’s duplicitous dealings, as well as the affair his wife (Thandie Newton) is having with presumed pal Richard. Throw in a DEA agent (Yul Vazquez) and Richard’s brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a mercenary nominally turned aid worker, called upon to retrieve Harold when he is kidnapped (actually by himself, but also by the emissaries of the cartel, who think he’s the man in charge), and you have the makings of a suitably spicy stew.
Oyelowo is undoubtedly the picture’s greatest boon, showing off a hitherto rarely tapped flair for comedy as event after event piles on top of poor Harold. Potentially, there’s a worm-has-turned element here, of the like of A Fish Called Wanda, but his resourcefulness also comes too easily in places, such as his ability to fend off kidnappers and surprisingly deadly skill with firearms. Nevertheless, Harold’s aptitude for emasculating histrionics is both very funny and admirably self-effacing, in particular his high-pitched screams in response to the injection of a tracking chip (“I don’t like needles!“). I do wonder if Harold’s belief in God wasn’t Oyelowo’s own addition, however.
Most of the characters are recognisable types, relying on the players to lift them. Elaine’s a brittle sociopath intent on offending everyone (especially Mexicans) she comes into contact with, but Theron adds an almost Ab Fab Patsy-ish quality to her complete disdain for basic social niceties (of the speechless Newton, she comments “It’s a deaf girl. She’s adorable“, before indulging some fake signing). Copley has done this before, but he’s an agreeable presence, while Alan Ruck scores as a prospective merger party interested mainly in merging with Elaine. The Miles/ Seyfried subplot is largely superfluous, though, and the suggestion she might end up with Harold is left curiously stranded.
You can’t help feeling Tambakis and Stone missed a trick by featuring very little interaction with the cartel, particularly since Carlos Corona (as its head Villegas, also known as the Black Panther – I know) plays his eccentricities without winking. Indeed, if some of the self-consciously oddball content rather falls flat, the running gag of Villegas’ obsession with The Beatles (“And to be clear, the best album from The Beatles is Let it Be”), to the extent that he shoots someone who comments “Yeah, I did like them. But then I grew up“, roundly lands.
Gringo also ends a little too neatly, Harold enabled to vanish off the map while Richard gets his comeuppance (Elaine is allowed to prosper, though). While I don’t think the picture needed to be longer than it is (heaven forfend), it doesn’t seem to know quite how to resolve its various threads in a satisfying manner. They feel either pat or rushed. Edgerton directs efficiently, although I’m not sure he has a particular flair for comedy, patchy as this one is; he’s lucky to have Olewyo to make the bright spots look easy. This one got largely trampled by the critics, but it’s an agreeably inoffensive time-passer.