Synopsis – GRINGO, a dark comedy mixed with white-knuckle action and dramatic intrigue, explores the battle of survival for businessman Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) when he finds himself crossing the line from law-abiding citizen to wanted criminal.
My Take – Gone are the days when we would walk into an ensemble-driven comedy expecting rapid-fire dialogue with quips flying as often as bullets, a cadre of contemporary character actors playing gangster, and a deep well chaos centering on our average protagonist, someone we all would be rooting for. However, with the recent success of Game Night, it’s possible we’re getting back into the zone of slick caper comedy genre which included sordid schemes, double-crosses and zany misadventures from a top-notch cast, a genre made very popular back in 90s. This Amazon Production comes from Nash Edgerton, brother of Joel, who co-stars in the film, and an accomplished stunt performer and coordinator, who returns to the director’s chair 10 years after his underappreciated film, The Square, hit the screens, in order to helm an unoriginal yet engaging madcap dark comedy/crime drama that can succinctly be defined as a light version of a Coen Brothers film. Sure, the film is a million miles from the best film ever and probably won’t stay with you long to be honest, but fortunately for director Nash Edgerton, he has assembled such a quality cast that amounts to nothing but a fun two hours long film that has little more on its mind than entertaining you. After watching this over the weekend, I can totally understand why top-tier talents such as Charlize Theron, David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton and Thandie Newton were attracted to the B-film material of this down-and-dirty, cheerfully nasty, violent action comedy – they all had the opportunity to take on roles you might not immediately associate with their onscreen personas. The story follows Harold (David Oleyowo), a straight-laced, play-by-the-book, honest Nigerian who works as a clueless underling at a pharmaceutical company called Cannabis Technologies that has been developing a revolutionary medical marijuana pill, under his college friend, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and his business partner Elaine (Charlize Theron).
Despite being disturbed by the news that his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) who has been ruining his credit, is about to leave him, and that he maybe also losing his job soon in the wake of a looming merger, Harold accepts to tag along with Richard & Elaine on a work trip to Mexico, in order to visit their factory to which Harold heads. Border lined by depression to make some corporate ransom for himself, Harold decides to stage his own kidnapping, however, what Harold doesn’t know that the Richard & Elaine are in deep with the cartel and when the Beatles-loving cartel leader, Black Panther (Carlos Corona), learns that Harold is the key to acquiring the formula for the medical marijuana pill, he is going to make Harold’s pretend kidnapping all too real. Meanwhile, Miles (Harry Treadaway) and his girlfriend, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), who repeatedly cross paths with Harold in Mexico, are also on a dangerous and very stupid mission to grab a certain drug sample and smuggle it back to the States. Trust me the film’s full plot is far too complex for a satisfying summation, as over a dozen characters come in and out of the story, all of them woefully unaware of how minuscule a role they play in this crazy business, were multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. If this all sounds confusing and meandering, that’s because it is sometimes confusing and meandering. But director Nash Edgerton and screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone do a fine job of juggling the multiple story lines, moving things along at an entertaining clip and planting us firmly in Harold’s corner as he finally begins to take control of his destiny. If you go into this expecting a slick, international thriller with some relevant social commentary about relations between the United States and Mexico, the state of corporate greed and how bad things often happen to good people, well, there’s a little bit of that stuff lightly sprinkled in. But mostly this is a next-generation Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie knockoff with excellent performances from the outstanding cast, a couple of pretty decent twists, some bloody good laughs and well, that’s about it. With a film like this, either you’ll tap out after 15 minutes or you’ll settle in for an evening of popcorn and beverage-of-your choice escapism. While the misleading trailers made it out to be a stoner comedy on the lines of Pineapple Express, which it clearly is not, the film is more in the line of a dark comedy about a bunch of likable but bad people trying to screw each other over. The film carries a nice B-film vibe, and a bunch of good actors who are obviously enjoying playing lowlifes and it’s dark enough that it will put off some people, but if you like black comedies and are okay with graphic violence, it’s a solid option. You can see those stunt roots here, which is not over-the-top action but puts together a number of solid action sequences ranging from visual comedy to bone-jarring violence. Edgerton’s gift as a director is keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and still making all of his story threads come together in a way that makes sense and is actually quite clever. He has faith that his actors will do what is necessary to solidify the personalities of their characters, even if that means audiences will likely hate them and he’s actually counting on that. 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 which makes the film an amusing watch. For example, while Richard is a manipulative, lying bastard, he’s nothing compared to Elaine, who uses a combination of sex and cruelty to advance herself in the workplace and in her clandestine affair with Richard, who himself is sleeping with someone else and then there’s Harold, who over the course of the film finds himself in the cross hairs of not one, but five different factions, each with their own reasons for detaining, killing or saving him – sometimes by the same character. Still, considering the talented ensemble and the broad satirical targets, the film really should be have been. As time goes on, the script keeps loading more stuff aboard, and soon the story begins to list. There are two comic-relief brothers taking up more space than they should, and a young American couple whose main purpose seems to be getting underfoot (until the end, when Sunny is called upon to give the story a shot of sweetness and light). Also, the circuitous narrative of director Nash Edgerton‘s film is such that it never allows for a character or story line to develop in a particularly efficient way, as every few minutes an abrupt twist or turn sets things off in a new and unexpected direction. The film, packed to the brim with characters and plot points, is but a series of barely connected threads. It’s practically a case study in the consequences of taking too much on, bouncing recklessly and senselessly from one tone and group of characters to the next as it tackles such disparate subjects as drug cartels, Big Pharma corruption, a mid-life crisis, corporate mergers, and even a mercenary’s path toward redemption. Also, the run time is a problem, as tight 90-minute comedy, it could have more concisely captured the nutty Coen Brothers feel. 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. However, the entertainment quotient of the film comes from its hugely talented cast, a roster of A listers not usually known for comedies. Led by David Oyelowo, who shoulders nearly all of the film’s comedy. This is an actor we know primarily through high-drama, and yet here he is, going big and broad and owning all the films biggest laughs with a panicked shtick that never gets old. It would just be empty silliness without a real pro like Selma actor Oylowo making sure we dramatically empathize with the character in his early scenes, before everything gets nuts. Here, Oyelowo is delightful, and I hope he gets the chance to do more comedy. Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton are also hilariously sinister on a cartoonish level. Sharlto Copley also turns in yet another unique performance. As the film’s wildest element, Copley’s insanity makes a huge mark in the chaos of the film’s second half. In supporting roles, Thandie Newton, Melonie Diaz, Amanda Seyfried, Harry Treadaway, Diego Catano, Rodrigo Corea, Yul Vasquez, Alan Ruck, Carlos Corona and Paris Jackson (in her film debut), play their parts well. On the whole, ‘Gringo‘ is a likable well-placed comedy which despite a bloated and rudderless script turns out to a worthy watch for genre fans.
Directed – Nash Edgerton
Rated – R
Run Time – 110 minutes