It seems apparent that director Nash Edgerton and writer Matthew Stone (writer of Intolerable Cruelty, Man of the House, Life, and Soul Men, not the co-creator of South Park) were really trying to capture the wonderful silliness of the classic caper films of old with their newest film, Gringo. At times they succeed, with the movie containing some of the madcap zaniness you’d see in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (only, you know, set in Mexico, with an actual person as the McGuffin). At other times, the disparate plot threads get mangled into an incoherent mess thanks to too many moments of plot convenience and a lack of logic in proceedings.
David Oyelowo, miles removed from his turn as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, is that person of interest as Harold, a by-the-numbers middle management type who attempts to right the wrongs in his life caused by others by taking matters into his own hands, only to wind up the target of multiple assassins in and around a Mexican drug cartel. The film begins with him calling into his office (a Chicago pharmaceutical company that has condensed medical cannabis into pill form) to report he’s been kidnapped. He’s scared, there’s a gun to his head, and his captors want five million dollars for his release. His boss and friend, Richard (Joel Edgerton, director Nash’s brother, playing against type) and the company’s co-president Elaine (Charlize Theron, who co-produced the film) seem scared and concerned for his well-being.
We then go back 48 hours to give lie to all that nonsense. It would be very interesting to see just how screwed Harold is, if not for the fact that the trailers more than gave away just how terrible Richard and Elaine are as people. That leaves the exposition a little bit taxing, because we already know they’re shitheels, so why are we spending more than a half hour establishing just how much?
Anyway, Harold is well and truly fucked. He’s going broke, his company is about to be bought out (with him likely being a redundancy) while his supposed friend, Richard, lies right to his face about it. Elaine is every dickbag, racist, elitist, corporate fuck you’ve seen on TV (think Martin Shkreli with tits). And to top it all off, Harold’s wife, Bonnie (a criminally underused Thandie Newton) is cheating on him – with Richard as he later discovers. Harold was raised to follow the rules, believing that would lead him to prosperity in America (his character is originally from Nigeria – which leads to a cringeworthy joke about Nigerian princes used as a bonding moment later on). But of course, the real world doesn’t work that way. Richard, Elaine, and their ilk will always prey on honest people to get ahead, and usually suffer no consequences for it.
After being forced into committing a little bit of corporate espionage on Richard’s behalf, Harold decides to get his revenge on a company trip to Mexico. See, there’s a discrepancy on the books as to the company’s supply chain. That’s because the factory in Mexico has been selling product to a local cartel to keep them from interfering (and also to provide seed funding when the company first began). Now that they’re about to merge with another powerful pharma company, they have to fix that, so Richard and Elaine go to the plant with Harold in tow, and demand that the cartel be cut off. Harold has no knowledge of this – he’d rather make nice with the chauffeurs and factory workers, cause he’s what we plebes would dub a quote, “decent human being.”
Once his world has come crashing down, Harold stages his own kidnapping, with the aid of two idiot teenagers running a shady motel. He calls in his own ransom, knowing the company has an insurance policy to pay out ransoms up to the requested $5 million. This brings us up to present. Unfortunately for him, this comedy of errors immediately starts turning on him, as the company lapsed the hostage insurance policy, but not the employee life insurance policy, so Rich has the brilliant idea to hire his former mercenary brother Mitch (yes, they’re Rich and Mitch – I rolled my eyes, too), played by Sharlto Copley, to first extract Harold, and then to kill him so they can collect on the policy.
Meanwhile, two other plot threads are going on in the interconnected background. A guy working in a guitar shop named Miles (Harry Treadway) is offered $20,000 to go to Mexico and get a sample of the pill, so a local dealer can replicate it. Desperate for cash, but not eager for the risk, he takes the job, and his girlfriend, Sunny (an interchangeable Amanda Seyfried) across the border from California, where they run into Harold way too many times for it to be believable. Also, the head of the local drug cartel, who goes by the nickname “The Black Panther,” (ooh, bad timing) wants Harold because he has access to the secret formula himself. Two very different parties with VERY different sets of resources, but the same goal: get the recipe for the drug to sell it themselves.
So by the halfway point of the movie, Harold’s plot to get one over on corporate dickheads has backfired three-fold, and he’s hilariously running wild all over Veracruz trying to escape with money, his dignity, and his life in varying degrees of priorities. The film is at its best when it just focuses on the farce of Harold’s situation. And to its credit, a good chunk of the time is devoted where it needs to be. However, because of all the loose plot threads, when we do check in on them (sometimes an hour after the last scene), it becomes confusing, and something of a chore.
Moreover, there are some mixed messages with the various resolutions once everything comes to a head. For example, Miles gets some wholly illogical comeuppance in order to set up a potential romance between Sunny and Harold, while Elaine gets a somewhat “happy” ending, even though she’s just as horrible as Rich or anyone else. Part of me wonders if it was a condition of Theron being in the film/co-producing it. It’s somewhat hypocritical to have a character who’s super terrible and who essentially sells her body for business advantage (chiefly towards an executive from the company buying them out, played by Alan Ruck) become a “victim” because she gets cheated on, and is therefore justified in double-crossing other people to set her up as a bigger victor than Harold himself in his own story. Further, Rich’s secretary, Mia (Melonie Diaz) figures to be an important person when it comes to saving Harold and bringing Rich and Elaine to justice. Instead she just fades into the background halfway through.
So yeah, this movie had a lot of comic potential. Oyelowo is tremendous and just a ton of fun. Everything that happens on the fringes, though, left me wanting. There are certainly a good deal of chuckles to be had, but there too many logical holes to fully recommend. Still, seems like a good movie to get really high and just laugh at.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What movie should I rate next? Are you as impressed with David Oyelowo’s range as I am? How cool was it to see Alan Ruck in a movie again? Let me know!