Movie Review: Gringo.
Gringo is a dark comedy about kidnapping that seems to be daring you not to like it. Despite that, I did wind up enjoying it.
Gringo is a film about one decent person having his life turned into a living hell because of an ocean of assholes surrounding him, and how he decides he’s not going to take it anymore. As we watch Harold (David Oyelowo) try to out smart and out hustle a world full of belligerent and manipulative sociopaths, the film becomes less of an ode to the little guy than a jaundiced reflection about how nasty people can be. To that end, Gringo takes a cast filled with talented actors and asks them to be as unlikable as possible. In the end this leads to a gleeful series of catastrophes as bad people come to bad ends, but until the tables start to turn you have to survive a film that is as calculating and aggressive as its characters.
Harold Shoyinka (David Oyelowo) is a middle manager for a shady firm that is about to roll out a new and not quite legal cannabis pill. Harold is a long suffering cog in a machine dominated by two horrendous bosses (Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron) who treat everyone around them like garbage. Before the pill can be revealed to the market, Harold has to travel to Mexico to deal with a problem: a nasty cartel boss called The Black Panther (yeah, timing for this character name is not great!) has been skimming product and is angling to get his claws deeper into the supply chain. Harold finds himself in the center of a deadly scramble to control this new drug, surrounded by people who are more than happy to throw him to the wolves.
Know What You’re Buying.
This movie has been described as a dark comedy. While there are some wry moments of humor, this is not an accurate description. None of the characters are played for broad laughs, despite the trailer‘s insistence to the contrary. Harold is not a lovable wall flower constantly shrieking hilariously at outlandish misadventures. The bad bosses are not cartoonish villains waiting for a suitably amusing take-down. The promotional material presents Gringo like its A Fish Called Wanda mixed with a generic Jason Bateman comedy. That is not this movie. This movie is filled with toxic characters and vicious happenings, and the humor mostly springs up from recognizing that the real world can often be this nasty and messed up.
Thank God for the Casting.
A movie with a convoluted premise about repellent characters and morally odious undertakings can only succeed if the cast is talented and able, which luckily it is. After a forgettable performance in The Cloverfield Paradox, David Oyelowo shows why his star is on the rise by making Harold into a complex and interesting character, all while not mugging for sympathy. Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron really lean into being complete jerks while also making their characters multi-faceted. Sharlto Copley is once again riveting and eccentric. Amanda Seyfriend plays the only purely sympathetic character, and her performance keeps key moments from becoming depressingly dark. There is still quite a bit of forbearance required in the early goings of the film to get on board with so many bad people, but the excellent acting goes a long way to redeem it.
The major issue with Gringo is that it requires you to eat quite a lot of vegetables until you get to have your steak. The plot is intricate and requires establishing all of the players and their motivations before the action can finally begin. This is a four-sided game of rugby where Harold is the ball. Perhaps the simple joy in watching him get jostled and punted from one team’s side to another would have sufficed without all of the laborious establishing work, but I do believe the film is richer for how much pain director Nash Edgerton takes in setting up the playing field and the rule of the game.
There is quite a bit in Gringo to put the audience off. Many of these characters aren’t your average movie jerks: they’re completely toxic individuals who hold untenable convictions. Early on we get a scene where Theron and Edgerton have a glass of wine while joking about how they hope Harold dies and how Theron can’t believe Edgerton is sleeping with Harold’s wife, since she used to be a “fatty.” Not only do they have repellent thoughts, they casually share them and act on them. They are deplorable and shameless, and the film doesn’t make any excuses for their behavior. This can often come off as a tacit approval. There is a reckoning in the end of the film for many of the characters, but not all of them. Some of these assholes land on their feet while decent people get destroyed, which is just how the real world works.
The Big Finalé.
I eventually wound up really enjoying Gringo despite checking my watch a few times during the first 30 minutes. Part of it was that the film’s trailer did a miserable job of communicating the style of this film. I kept expecting the laughs to materialize in this “dark comedy”, and kept getting frustrated by the film’s unapologetic nastiness. This ain’t a comedy. Instead, it is a meticulously crafted pyrotechnic show that makes you sit through the set up process.
A few early fireworks in the form of solid acting keep you interested until the whole shebang is ready to start. Once it does, the film is a glorious thing. Every little detail you watched get put into place suddenly catches fire and shoots across the screen. The final 30 minutes are tremendous fun as you watch everyone’s schemes come to a head. There are reversals and reveals that fly fast and furious, and you’re never sure of who is in the lead until the big finish. Gringo may feel laborious and brutish as it is placing its pieces, but once the dominoes start to fall it is a hell of a ride.