Brutally Comedic Gringo an Amoral Good Time
Things are not going well for Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo). His best friend, employer and Chicago pharmaceutical company CEO Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) might be selling his company and serendipitously planning to leave him without a job. The company’s CFO Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) looks to know all about it, and she’s not about to drop any hints letting anyone know what might be going on. The Mexican plant Harold supervises where the company’s primary product, a marijuana-based anxiety pill not yet legal in all 50 U.S. States, has been dealing with strange product shortfalls that have no rational explanation. Finally, his interior designer wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) no longer seems to be all that interested in him, the passions they once shared having mysteriously vanished into a day-to-day malaise that’s become unhappily the norm.
On a trip to Mexico to investigate what is going on at the plant, all of Harold’s worst fears are realized. He learns that Richard is going to sell, that Elaine knows all about it and that the pair could care less if he ends up on the unemployment line. Worse, Bonnie doesn’t just feel anything resembling passion for her husband anymore, she’s actually planning to leave him for someone else. A good man who has always done the right thing, Harold has had enough. Staying behind in Mexico while Richard and Elaine head back to Chicago, he decides to fake his own kidnapping, knowing the company has a $5-million insurance policy to pay ransom demands designed to guarantee the return of overseas employees back to the United States.
Needless to say, nothing goes as planned. Working from a Coen brothers meets Elmore Leonard-style script from writers Anthony Tambakis (Warrior) and Matthew Stone (Intolerable Cruelty), director Nash Edgerton follows up his divine 2008 Australian film noir The Square with another rowdy winner in the form of Gringo. A freewheeling crime and caper comedy of errors that gets more violently rambunctious as it goes along, the film is an elaborate shell game where it’s impossible to know which hat the walnut is under. Not only does Harold’s plan go wildly awry, turns out he’s also caught the eye of the local head of a particularly vicious drug cartel nicknamed “The Black Panther” (an amusing Carlos Corona), all of which means his fake kidnapping might transform into a literal one at any moment.
It’s freewheeling, undeniably silly stuff, all of it featuring an all-star cast that also includes the likes of Amanda Seyfried, Harry Treadaway, Kenneth Choi, Alan Ruck and a sensational Sharlto Copley as a former U.S. military operative who just so happens to be Richard’s estranged brother who takes on the job of rescuing Harold in exchange for money to help with Haitian disaster relief. Sadly, not all of them get to fully realize their potential, and unlike supporting characters in films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight or Burn After Reading, these individuals only exist to help engineer events so that they get crazier and more unbelievably extreme as things build to a conclusion. Seyfried, as charming and ebullient a presence as she might be, is given rather short shrift, and I repeatedly got the feeling the director wanted to make more use of her but could never quite find the best way to do so. She’s an artifice, a red herring, her wholly decent character appearing here only to show Harold goodness and light still exists and that, no matter how bleak things might become, hope in a better tomorrow shouldn’t be allowed to fade.
All of which are worthy sentiments. But as nice as they are they can just as readily feel decidedly out of place inside all this violently nihilistic indecency. Tambakis and Stone’s script works best when it gets more and more surreal, the writers sending Harold further down the rabbit hole to the point it becomes an honest question as to whether or not he’s going to make it out of this underground burrow in one piece. Characters are introduced and dispatched with gleefully callous disregard, the blood-splattered corpses left to rot in the sun as this in-over-his-head everyman frantically attempts to figure out what to do next. Much like The Square or The Gift (directed by this film’s star back in 2015), this is a motion picture that is at its best when it is at its meanest, the vicious glee showcased as the underbelly of the human condition is depicted with such undeniable relish it becomes increasingly difficult to resist.
At least, difficult to resist for people who enjoy this sort of thing. While no A Fish Called Wanda, Something Wild or Blood Simple, there’s so much fun to be had here calling this a B-grade, second-tier offshoot of those incontrovertible classics wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Oyelowo is outstanding, and while he spends most of the story delivering various yelps for help or bug-eyed stairs of incredulous disbelief, he still manages to find the innately decent humanity lying at the center of his character and thus makes Harold someone worth rooting for. Even better is Theron. She’s delivering an actual, complex, full-bodied performance, her vindictively relentless assault on the men in her life and the world she feels has wronged her beyond outstanding. But the Oscar-winner also brings a sense of tragedy and heartache to this conniving go-getter, a moment where she gives herself a tear-filled, angrily self-pitying pep talk in the front seat of her car frankly incredible.
I did want more from Gringo, and there were times where I was annoyed at just how little use Edgerton was getting from certain members of his impressive cast, Newton in particular. But so much of the movie works like a dream, and I absolutely adored just how obnoxiously convoluted and ferociously aberrant the climactic turn of events ended up proving to be. But even with that being so Edgerton never loses sight of who Harold is, and as such it’s easy to believe that happiness is and contentment are genuinely possible, and like long walks on the beach at sunset there are plenty of reasons to think good guys can finish first; they’ll just have the scars to prove it.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)