PLOT Disloyal business partners and a drug cartel push an easygoing man over the edge in Mexico.
CAST David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron
RATED R (language throughout, violence and sexual content)
BOTTOM LINE Oyelowo is endearing in an otherwise lackluster movie.
A mild-mannered middle-management stooge gets lost, only to find himself, south of the border, in the mostly middling action-comedy “Gringo,” directed by Nash Edgerton, written by Anthony Tambakis and Matt Stone. David Oyelowo (“Selma”) tests out his comedy chops as Harold, a nice-guy Nigerian immigrant scraping by and scrapping for his slice of the American dream, which involves an inattentive wife (Thandie Newton), a tiny dog, a mountain of debt, and a couple of truly abusive, criminal individuals as bosses.
Harold and his bosses, basic bro Richard (Joel Edgerton) and wolf of Wall Street wannabe Elaine (Charlize Theron) work at a nebulous pharmaceutical company that’s secretly in a precarious financial position. Harold makes regular trips to check on the manufacturing in Mexico, and when Richard and Elaine come along, it results in trouble for Harold.
An under the table deal with a local drug cartel goes bad and Harold becomes the No. 1 target. But suddenly, Harold doesn’t want to go home anymore, and thus begins a cycle of Harold faking his own kidnapping, being kidnapped, escaping, being kidnapped again, and so on and so forth.
Everything about “Gringo,” from the storytelling to the comedy to the cinematography is incredibly lackluster. The film is dark and dim, like everything’s covered in a layer of dust. Oyelowo is quite endearing and funny as Harold, but he’s given very little to work with.
“Gringo” bills itself as a dark comedy, because it’s very violent (there’s almost no regard for human life, just Harold’s) and because corporate piranha Elaine says a lot of shockingly horrible things — racist, sexist, ableist, fat-shaming horrible things. Her worldview is the definition of the phrase “punching down.” The writers seem to think this makes her edgy, or tough, or worthy of admiration. If her character had any arc, it might make sense, but she doesn’t.
Her abusiveness doesn’t tell us anything about her character, but it does tell us everything about these writers. Dark comedy is a difficult needle to thread, and one absolutely necessary quality to do it well is intelligence. But the treatment of Elaine isn’t smart at all, just sensationalist and shocking. This “Gringo” is better off staying underground forever.