Film Review: Gringo

An assured comedic turn by David Oyelowo is the highlight of this otherwise uneven action romp.
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Late in the action-comedy Gringo, formerly mild-mannered corporate exec Harold Soyinka, portrayed by Selma star David Oyelowo, fires a fatal gunshot at one of the multitudes of kidnappers, mercenaries and thugs who’ve chased the so-called gringo negro all over Veracruz, Mexico.

Without any significant pause in the frenetic action, the camera registers Harold’s shock and distress, conveyed succinctly by Oyelowo’s stricken expression. Then, he and the film barrel ahead towards the all-guns-blazing climax this sort of triple-cross caper always comes to in the end.

It’s to the credit of director Nash Edgerton and his editors that throughout the wild machinations of the movie’s pharma-deal-gone-south storyline, Gringo stays attuned to the subtleties of Oyelowo’s performance. The actor also carries off the grander comic gestures underlining Harold’s underdog charm and delightful awakening as the mastermind of his own fake kidnapping, in a ransom plot that goes predictably awry.

Unfortunately, the script, by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, and the direction are not as well attuned to several other major characters filling out the cast. Namely, the main villains at the bottom of this lighthearted but deadly intrigue—the ruthless Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron), Harold’s bosses at Chicago-based Promethium Pharmaceuticals—seem miscalculated. Oscar-winner Theron, who so wonderfully tapped into a darker comedic vein playing mean yet sympathetic in the underrated 2011 dramedy Young Adult, has less success here making viperous, un-PC businesswoman Elaine more than just mean. She’s definitely not as scorchingly funny as intended.

And, as it turns out that Elaine is more invested than she’d like to admit in the affair she’s been having with colleague Richard, she’s also not as heartless as she pretends to be, yielding a shaky contradiction in characterization that neither Edgerton’s direction nor Theron’s performance pulls off convincingly. As the outrageously self-satisfied Richard, co-star Edgerton has fewer cards to play essaying a heel who’s beyond redemption, but his deadpan portrayal doesn’t deliver many laughs.

This pair of promiscuous cutthroats are written as cold-blooded bosses from hell, in the vein of The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly or the abusive Buddy Ackerman from Swimming with Sharks, but rather than packing a fierce and funny sting, Richard and Elaine are, more or less, duds. At least they serve greater purpose within the texture of this world of unlikeable criminals and capitalists than pure plot-device characters like Harry Treadaway’s Miles, a bumbling drug mule, and Amanda Seyfried’s Sunny, the drug mule’s unsuspecting girlfriend.

Miles and Sunny are tossed early on into the mix, during a bone-dry setup that takes too much time configuring all the pieces in this puzzle, involving Promethium’s illicit partnership with a notorious Mexican drug dealer known as the Black Panther (Carlos Corona). The follow-through, during which most of Richard’s and Elaine’s and the Black Panther’s schemes are elaborated, revealed or foiled, also proceeds rather sluggishly. On the bright side, Corona, in his few scenes as the boilerplate Hollywood movie Latino drug dealer, manages to inject some verve into his threats and Tarantinoesque digressions parsing the relative quality of Beatles albums.

Outside of the Panther’s musings and stray moments of Harold’s misadventures, the film gets a much-needed shot in the arm from Sharlto Copley’s brief appearance as mercenary Mitch, sent in to rescue the “kidnapped” Harold. Yet, Mitch, like Miles and Sunny, is a character whose actions make not much sense given what we learn about him and what he knows about everyone else. But he comes in handy once or twice, wielding crack movie-rescue timing.

Director Edgerton too often hedges suspense, by just tossing something—a van, a man, a bullet—at whoever has the jump on the hero Harold. The narrative train consistently switches, stalls and nearly derails, but ultimately the story keeps rolling, such as it does, because of Harold, and Oyelowo’s spirited portrayal of the regular guy at the center of this only intermittently amusing affair.

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