Immigrants like me have a complex relationship with the so-called American dream. While growing up in another country, we were told by the U.S. culture and media that if we moved to the states, worked hard to achieve our goals, and played by the rules, then any one of us could be successful at our chosen field. As much as we appreciate many aspects of American life, the promise of this particular dream is eventually crushed under the realization that the system is actually rigged in favor of the rich, the connected and the amoral. Midpoint through Gringo, an unoriginal yet engaging madcap dark comedy/crime drama that can succinctly be defined as Coen Brothers-light, Nigerian immigrant Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) lays out these same frustrations with the American dream at a sketchy-as-hell Mexican bar while getting shit-faced, unaware of the immediate danger that surrounds him.
Harold has a lot to be angry about. He played by the rules and did work hard, and for his efforts he was saddled with a dead-end job at a shady pharmaceutical company, sucking up to his yuppie asshole ex-college friend/current boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton), and his psychotically ambitious nutcracker of a partner, Elaine (Charlize Theron). The spending habits of his beautiful but ungrateful wife, Bonnie (Thandie Newton), are pushing him to the brink of bankruptcy, and on top of all of that, while on a work trip to Mexico, he gets double gut punched by back-to-back news that he’s about to lose his job and his wife. Every Coen Brothers “homage” has to have, as its first plot point, a joe schmo schmuck pushed into a desperate enough situation to become involved in an insanely complicated and deadly crime scheme. Harold is certainly up to the challenge, so he decides to fake his own kidnapping in order to fleece Richard of five million dollars.
In his mind, he’s finally participating in the American success game the way it’s supposed to be played, but the selfish Richard’s disinterest in saving him places him back at square one, leading him to complain about his immigrant experience at the bar. What he doesn’t know is that he’s about to be kidnapped for real by a cartel boss (Carlos Corona) who’s looking to get his hands on a top-secret marijuana pill formula that Harold’s company holds. This set of events lead to a predictably convoluted but surprisingly gripping tangle of miscommunications and confusions that involve a special ops mercenary with a newfound interest in charity work (Sharlto Copley) and two tourists (Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried) who are in way over their heads as they attempt to smuggle the pills out of the country.
If you’ve seen your share of similar crime comedies, the screenplay’s many twists, back-stabbings and surprise reveals concerning who are allies and who are enemies, will not be entirely that surprising, but the film does have a few things going it. Tonally, director Nash Edgerton strikes a nice balance between the absurd and the genuinely thrilling, the script by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone deftly points out the frailty and hypocrisy of its characters without turning them into peons of cheap parody, and the performances that flirt with broad comedy while letting the audience relate to their motivations all prevent Gringo from ending up as yet another forgettable and mediocre genre exercise.
At an hour and fifty minutes, Gringo could have certainly benefitted from some trims. As a tight 90-minute comedy, it could have more concisely captured the nutty Coen Brothers feel. The sub-plot about Treadaway and Seyfried’s characters could have easily been removed without affecting the plot, and a reveal about yet another back-stabbing action from Richard to Harold is unnecessary, since Richard’s disinterest in saving the life of his friend is enough for us to hate him in the first place. There are also some clichéd moves to add some playful and absurdist details into the characters, like the cartel boss’ murderous obsession with the The Beatles, which triggers the “annoying quirk” meter, but they are few and far between.
Edgerton is sufficiently despicable as a yuppie caricature, but it’s Charlize Theron’s predatory performance as a woman who will do anything to get ahead that really shines in the antagonist department. Even though his ridiculous American accent isn’t believable for a second, Sharlto Copley as the mercenary who not only struggles with finding a newfound form of spirituality while still rejecting religion, but is suffering from murder withdrawals after leaving his old violent life behind, is a fun little addition. But it’s the central performance by Oyelowo, who allows us to laugh at Harold’s naiveté and tomfoolery with some well-placed broad comedy choices while never dropping the ball on the character’s relatability, that makes Gringo a worthy watch for genre fans.
Director: Nash Edgerton
Writers : Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone; Matthew Stone (story)
Starring: David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley, Melonie Diaz, Harry Treadaway, Amanda Seyfried, Carlos Corona
Release Date: March 9, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.