By Will Ashton (Three Beers) –
There are great dark comedies. There are terrible dark comedies too. Nash Edgerton’s Gringo is neither. A handsomely made, rigorously mean-spirited pitch-black cartel satire —one that’s more of a debauched plan-gone-wrong thriller than the weed comedy some promos suggest — that’s poking fun at American greed, capitalism, the wayward experiences of modern immigrants, and (of course) the American Dream, Gringo has ambition and talent to shine, notably from its high caliber cast, but it doesn’t have enough to say or add to the conversation to make it count. Trying hard to carry a message, if one that’s been told several times by now, this ’90s-esque crime comedy clearly takes notes from Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, but it doesn’t have the same level of wit and charm to hit their very high standards.
Nevertheless, it’s at least watchable — which is more than I can say for many comedies (notably dark comedies) made and released lately. And it is certainly spunky, if never necessarily original. It follows Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a good-hearted immigrant trying earnestly to make his dreams come true in America. He lives in Chicago, working for a medical marijuana company called Cannabax Technologies Inc., where he’s friends with his boss Richard Ruck (Joel Edgerton, Nash’s brother) but is constantly belittled or demeaned anyway. He’s married to Bonnie (Thandie Newton), who is spending all his money and putting him on the verge of bankruptcy. Bonnie is also sleeping with Richard, to add insult to injury. Harold is an optimistic person by nature, but he’s in dire straits. When Richard and Harold travel to Mexico with fellow boss Elaine Markison (Charlize Theron) to help manufacture their new product, the Weed Pill, Harold comes up with a fake kidnapping scheme to benefit from the company’s two million dollar insurance policy, which kicks into effect if anything were to happen during a business trip.
But things quickly go south. as they usually do in these movies. Soon, Harold is kidnapped for real, being sought by the cartel, who have problems with the company. There’s also another ongoing subplot involving Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadway), who are in Mexico for different reasons, but that devolves into evidencing just how convoluted and overworked the storyline becomes here.
Gringo is benefitted by its dependable ensemble. David Oyelowo proves to be nicely adept at comedy. He plays the woebegone Harold with a plucky sincerity that’s likable without ringing false, and he reacts to the insanity of the situation in a way that’s rightfully distraught without becoming too broad or over-the-top. He’s not only a capable lead, but he’s an easily likable one too. That makes Gringo‘s generally nasty spirit run smoother. Joel Edgerton plays the smarmy asshole well. He knows how to ham it up just enough to make him detestable without overdoing it to the point where he’s completely unlikable. Seyfried is a warm presence, living up to her character’s chipper name, even if she is sorely misused here. Then there’s Charlize Theron, who only continues to get better. She knows how to play a real jerk really well. She brings a great versatility and depth to her character, who reads pretty flat otherwise, and Theron continues to showcase that the Young Adult actress can be at her best whenever she gets into deeply dark comedy.
Sharlto Copley, meanwhile, plays Mitch Ruck, a prominent supporting character who isn’t introduced until the second half. The character actor has a checkered history of playing crazy people. He can be terrific in the right part, but he can also overdo it too. Thankfully, Mitch Rick is a juicy role he savors nicely, not going too far into the deep end in his limited screen time. His wacky personality strengthens Gringo, as it gives the movie a kooky edge it was missing beforehand. He’s not enough to make it good overall, but he’s almost enough to make it a decent effort. You wish there was more time spent with Mitch.
Gringo also looks nice visually, with some fine cinematography and some engaging set pieces sprinkled throughout. The problem sure isn’t with the casting, nor is it with the overall look and texture of the film.
The script seems to be the biggest issue here. Written by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, with a story credit given to the latter, Gringo isn’t an incompetent film, but it’s a messy one. Plotlines get jumbled as the movie continues onward, with the C plot with Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadway usually always feeling secondary. While it’s neat to see a cameo from Paris Jackson, who shows promise here as a young actress, the story clashes with the story, even when it ultimately intersects with the main plotline. It is not the smoothest throughline. While Gringo teases some depth to Rich and Elaine, they aren’t given enough time in the scheme of things to feel completely fleshed out or richly realized. The beginning is also a bit too sluggish, taking too long to get to the action part of its action-comedy. It’s also not as weird and wild as it ought to be, producing a dark action comedy without the full strength of its bleak convictions.
The commentary is also not that compelling. There’s relevance to its message, sure, especially in today’s social climate. But Gringo still plays like a lost ’90s dark comedy that was dusted off and made today. It’s not a terrible script; it’s sadly just a sorta average one, and it’s hard to figure out what drew in this talent.
As for the comedy itself, it’s hit-and-miss. Some winning gags are seen throughout, but the jokes aren’t consistent, and the comedy is often at odds with the social commentary presented and the sense of menace produced throughout. Gringo is a pretty uneven film, without a clear, specific tone. There are moments when it goes from intense to lighthearted, often in the middle of a scene. These switches feel haphazard more than skillful. There’s evidence here that Nash Edgerton has talent as a director, but Gringo doesn’t come together as smoothly and slickly as it should. It’s not without its strengths, but the filmmaker’s first American film is more middling than it should be, given all the talented people involved.
Gringo isn’t bad enough to outright dismiss, nor is it particularly good enough to recommend. It’s a middle-of-the-road movie, one that isn’t without its highs (get it?) but never as good as it could be. An entertaining, high energy second half nearly saves this one, particularly with Sharlto Copley’s inclusion, but it is a “close, but no cigar” movie. Or perhaps a “close, but no blunt” movie, to be more accurate. Though even the stoner crowd might find themselves underwhelmed by a sadly fizzled out burnout film.
Gringo (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Richard and Elaine are just plain mean (or flat-out racist).
Take a Drink: every time Harold is scared (or pretending to be scared) for his life or well-being.
Take a Drink: every time someone is killed or hurt severely.
Take a Drink: every time they reference the Beatles.
Do a Shot: for the final reveal.