Release date: March 9, 2018 | Directed by: Nash Edgerton | Starring: Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, David Oyelowo | Rating: R | Run time: 1h 50 min
Based on the poster for Gringo alone, one could guess that this film is about cannabis, pharmaceuticals and hijinks gone awry. None of those things are true. Well, that last part is technically true, or, at least, what I assume the filmmakers intended; typically, however, “hijinks” implies some sort of fun was had. There is no fun in Gringo. Just wooden characters slogging through scene after scene. Sometimes Sharlto Copley (District 9, Chappie) and his manic comedic energy show up. That’s fun. Sometimes David Oyelowo (Selma, A United Kingdom) manages to rise above the screenplay and get a laugh—but only because he’s so damn good at acting. Please don’t credit Gringo with your laughter. Only Oyelowo.
So what is this movie about? It centers around Harold Soyinka, played by Oyelowo—the cliché mild-mannered businessman who plays by the rules. His bosses, Charlize Theron (Monster, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Joel Edgerton (Bright, Red Sparrow) are over-the-top greedy, manipulative executives. Speaking of Netflix’s big-budget nightmare experiment (that would be Bright), Gringo was financed by Amazon Studios. While writing this, I’ve been seeing ads to order Mexican food via Amazon Restaurants to celebrate the release of Gringo; this is wrong on many levels, but there’s a stupendous irony in a marketing campaign for a film that criticizes corporate greed synergistically suggesting I purchase Mexican food from their parent company.
Anyway. Edgerton’s brother, Nash, directed the film. He’s been a stuntman and stunt coordinator, and this is only his second time in the director’s chair on a full-length feature. Edgerton’s inexperience unfortunately shows here. Movies should say something—anything—and Gringo’s premise sets up a wealth of opportunities for commentary. Corporate greed. Big Pharma. The commercialization of medical cannabis. U.S.-Mexico relations. Playing by the rules versus taking what you want. And yet…nothing. This movie has fat jokes and jokes about deaf people, though, if that’s something you’re looking for, for some reason.
In case you’re still interested in the plot: Oyelowo’s company has created a cannabis pill called Cannabax. They’ve set up a grow operation in Mexico and, for various reasons I am too annoyed to explain (and I suppose to avoid giving you spoilers, though what’s the point, since I hope you don’t see this movie), Theron, Edgerton and Oyelowo must go on a business trip to meet with their Mexican colleagues. Things go awry. Antics ensue. It’s all so…tedious. The film’s only saving grace once the action starts is Sharlto Copley. Copley can do just about anything, and I’m delighted. Am I biased? I don’t think so. Empirically, Copley is a delight. He plays Edgerton’s brother, a mercenary-turned-humanitarian tasked with rescuing Oyelowo. They buddy around town, and their scenes were the only time throughout the film I didn’t find myself wondering when it would be over.
Characters in Gringo take action because the script told them to do so, not because it makes sense with their backstory, characteristics, wants or needs. Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!, and yes, you better fucking believe I’ll be seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in theaters multiple times this summer, ABBA is life) is a blank slate of a human. She exists because someone needs to take care of Oyelowo, I guess. Oyelowo goes from a man too afraid to confront his wife about her tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt to someone who shoots people in the face. Characters need to have arcs, sure, but maybe not face-shooting arcs that come out of nowhere.
The main problem with dark action comedies is that they just…don’t work most of the time. Mixing crime and comedy comes off, for the most part, pretty wanky and self-satisfied. Some examples of when it’s done right: Fargo, In Bruges, The Big Lebowski. Basically any Coen brothers film. When done incorrectly, everything seems a little too contrived, too self-aware; it’s like seeing a one-act play put on by high schoolers who just saw Boondock Saints for the first time. It makes you cringe and want to mutter, “Oh, sweetie, no.” Most people grow out of that phase. Others grow up and make Gringo.