The good news is David Oyelowo is a terrific comedic actor (who knew!).
The bad news is that the vehicle for discovery, Nash Edgerton’s “Gringo,” is a contrived action-comedy that is trying its hardest to shock and offend, but, you know, in a funny, cool B-movie way that involves someone’s toe getting cut off with wire clippers and Charlize Theron, a seductress in a corner suite, talking a lot about sex.
Oyelowo plays Harold, a Nigerian immigrant and middle manager for a pharma company run by his friend Richard (Joel Edgerton). His bosses are mass producing a marijuana pill so that they’ll be ready to conquer the market when it’s legalized in the U.S., but unbeknownst to him they’re sustaining their business on illegal sales in Mexico facilitated by a local drug lord (Carlos Corona).
We know Harold’s life is sad because we’re introduced to him in the middle of a bitter Chicago winter. He takes his pup out in the freezing cold in the morning and then goes to meet with his accountant, who informs Harold that his wife, Bonnie (Thandie Newton) is digging them into massive debt with her costly and unsuccessful interior design business. When Harold suggests that perhaps Bonnie not rent out expensive office space while she’s still launching the business and has only one client, she scoffs and it’s the end of the discussion.
Greedy, selfish wife? Emasculated provider husband who is also mistreated at work? A soulless set of bosses, one a vacuous bro, the other (Theron’s Elaine) who uses sex, dirty talk and unbuttoned silk blouses to close business deals, who are involved in a shady business arrangement in Mexico and are ready to send Harold packing the moment their secret merger goes through?
Sounds like a setup only a screenwriter (in this case, two, Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone) in need of a launching pad for a crazy, Cartel-adjacent Mexican adventure could dream up. The result is none of these characters resemble recognizable humans, or even compelling “types.”
So, Elaine, Richard and Harold go off to Mexico to cut off the illegal arm of their business, which Harold knows nothing about.
None of them speak Spanish, even Harold, who is supposed to be the main liaison there. Naturally, the drug lord they’re in business with, the Black Panther (no relation to T’Challa), is not ready to give up this weed pill supply and sets off to kidnap Harold.
Every character we meet there, whether it’s the office manager with a half dozen kids, the sleazy hotel managers, the bartender, etc., is either connected to the cartels or ready to sign up to get a few extra bucks.
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There’s also a subplot about a younger couple Miles (Harry Treadaway) and Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) who travel from LA to Mexico to steal one of these weed pills (Sunny is of course oblivious). But it never really pays off or connects in any meaningful way, other than the fact that they happen to run into Harold a lot.
“Gringo” gets some life when Richard dispatches his brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a bearded ex-special ops guy, to save Harold. The two have a funny chemistry together, but it’s a little too brief and too late.
There’s a lot of gun violence, casual racism, and hatefulness in general, especially toward women. Besides Bonnie’s excessive spending, the only other thing we learn about her is that she’s a cheater and she used to be “fat,” or 50 pounds heavier, which I’m not entirely sure would actually make Thandie Newton fat. And Theron is given the worst character of all in Elaine, who not so subtly seduces every man around her for her own advancement, is never without a drink in her hand (with a red lipstick mark on it) and an offensive comment at the ready. That the one tolerable female character in here is Sunny, a doe-eyed young innocent who loves butterflies, tells you a lot about the world view of the guys who made this film.
Oyelowo is the one who comes off without a scratch and actually has some quite amusing moments (he has a great, high-pitched scream and solid comedic timing). If only the movie was a better showcase.
“Gringo,” an STX Entertainment and Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language throughout, violence and sexual content. Running time: 110 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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