If you’re betting man or woman, a movie headlined by the likes of David Oyelowo (Selma, Queen of Katwe), Joel Edgerton (Loving), Charlize Theron (Monster, Atomic Blonde), and Thandie Newton (Westworld) would be a sensible wager that you’re in for a good time. You may not be certain exactly what kind of good time, but a cast like this one, that has long ago made acting their bitch, you couldn’t go very wrong. For a film like the Amazon Studios-produced Gringo, that is a fortunate thing indeed.
Oyelowo, who has explained in interviews that his role of Harold, was originally written not for a white actor per se, but with a white guy in mind, is a revelation in the comedic role of a man cuckolded not just in his personal life, but in his professional life as well. Harold turns the phrase hell hath no fury than a woman scorned on its head, showing us that hell hath no fury than a really, really nice guy who finds out no one he knows respects or gives two hecks about him. They especially don’t care about the fact that he’s nice. Harold goes into revenge mode on steroids. Errbody gon pay! The thing is, Harold is new to the game. Harold is new to the fact that there is a game. He becomes a fumbling vigilante with a plan to exact revenge that’s based on the naive assumption that the people in his life see him as more than an object or a means to an end. They don’t. Not an iota. So his plan goes off the rails before it even starts.
Theron and Edgerton play Elaine Markinson and Richard Rusk. Both colleagues of Oyelowo’s Harold Soyinka at a Chicago pharmaceutical firm, their hearts are as cold as winter winds blowing over Lake Michigan. Though Elaine is steadily a proud ice princess who wears her disdain like a model showcasing the latest couture on the runway, Richard is the quintessential narcissistic sociopath. He is more like black ice; incredibly slick and intensely dangerous. Richard’s stream of insincere pats on the back and glib musings over the years couldn’t have done a better job of making the naif Harold think Richard is his close friend as well as his boss. In truth, Richard has kept Harold close because Harold’s ingenuousness is convenient. Harold simultaneously enables and obfuscates Richard’s pharmaceutical company’s nefarious practices. Harold is also the type you need on hand as a fall guy if said nefarious practices gets your company in trouble with the law. He is the guy whose wife, played by Thandie Newton, you hire to redecorate your slick Gold Coast apartment so you can sleep with her- then make fun of with your actual girlfriend.
As Gringo’s plot unfolds, Richard and Elaine ready the company for a sale and must make sure that things look good on the books prior. In full “Ugly American” mode, they go to Mexico to put the kibosh on a little illegal drug side action they had going on, carelessly insulting every Mexican they encounter in the process. Harold accompanies them, thinking of course they are there for a whole other reason. It’s on this trip to Mexico though that the wool is removed from over Harold’s eyes. However, it might be too little too late and the lamb may still be headed for slaughter.
The local The Beatles-obsessed drug lord who was facilitating distribution of Richard and Elaine’s illicit product, does not want to let go of the lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed. He concocts a plan of his own to find out who the “gringo” boss is and force him to give him access to the drug. First generation African immigrant Harold, is mistaken for the head gringo in charge and is thrust into the crosshairs of real danger even as he sets in motion a fake kidnapping scheme where he expects to extort $5 million dollars from his “friend” Richard’s company. Little does he know the depths of Richard’s subterfuge and moral debasement. It is extremely unlikely that Richard will come up with the money to “save” Harold.
Though the script by Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis is decent, in less capable hands Gringo could well have been a disaster. Probably owing to the fact that the film’s director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother), has worked extensively as a stunt coordinator, the action scenes are intently on point for a comedy film. Gringo, which views like a quasi-pulp amalgam of crime, violence, outsized personalities, and comedic situation, falls flat a bit at times. Perhaps precisely because the members of Gringo’s cast are the actors whose resumes are bullet pointed with very deep, earnest characters caught up in serious circumstances, the comedy doesn’t flow for every single gag. Because they are all so good at their craft, however, they deliver quite a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments in Gringo. Oyelowo is the surprising standout in this regard. He has the best comedic timing. Of note is the scene where, when all seems lost, he defaults to the wailing and ululating in his mother tongue that many immigrants can relate to. Oyelowo masterfully in makes this scene funny yet free from gross racial or ethnic stereotypes. And as reprehensible as the leads are, they are so strongly committed to their characters that they are unquestionably engaging, if not likable. They are monsters, yet they are human beings, and it is a testament to the acting chops of them all.
Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway play and Sunny and Miles, a mismatched couple headed for a break up sooner rather than later. They work together at a store that sells musical instruments. One day, in comes bad and you know it Nelly, played by Paris Jackson (yes THE Paris Jackson) in her film debut. She tells Miles about a scheme to make a quick $20,000 which involves going to Mexico and stealing and drugs. Miles is here for all of that. Sunny isn’t as naive as Harold but she sure isn’t seeing the light either. She is into it when Miles suggests a jaunt south of the border. He leaves out all the boring, illegal details.
In one of the film’s glaring weaknesses, the two of them incredulously cross paths with Harold several times without their characters or actions adding much to the story. Pragmatically speaking, Seyfried and Treadaway are probably present more to put a few more younger butts in theater seats than anything else. Melonie Diaz, in a small role as Richard’s assistant, is also embarrassingly underutilized for someone with her talent and experience. Sharlto Copley gamely plays a mercenary who turns out to have a heart of gold.
Though all of Gringo’s elements don’t ultimately come together seamlessly enough for this to be a “great” movie, not all movies have to be great. Some of them just have to be a fun, funny, escapist two hours where you gaze at gorgeous people having a great time doing solid acting jobs on a fifty foot high screen. This cast delivers.
Gringo is out in theaters today.