Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a low-on-the-totem-pole businessman working for a nondescript white collar business run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) travels to Mexico to take a meeting, only to find out that he is being used as a patsy by his employers.
The man that he is in Mexico to meet, it turns out, works for drug kingpin Black Panther (not that one), who, upon hearing that they are being cut out of Richard and Elaine’s business dealings, assumes Harold is el jefe and orders his capture.
Meanwhile, American guitar store workers (Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway) just so happen to be traveling to Mexico on the same day as Harold to see the same drug kingpin that wants Harold dead. This is because Black Panther (not that one) is manufacturing a cannabis pill that Treadaway’s Miles intends to steal a sample of so a woman whose name is never clear (Paris Jackson, I think) can give it to her uncle to replicate and distribute illegally in the U.S.
Richard and Elaine are incidentally (?) trying to sell this very pill to an up-and-coming pharmaceutical company headed by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off‘s very own Alan Ruck. It never becomes important that both parties are trying to use the drug for their gains. In fact, the two parties never officially meet. The drug itself, too, is not all that important. I’d call it a MacGuffin, but it isn’t even really that.
What is important (?) is that Harold, to spite the employers that are planning on phasing him out of the company, and because he is in crippling debt thanks to the loose pockets of his soon-to-be ex-wife (she’s having an affair with Richard, by the way), decides to stage his own kidnapping in order to take the ransom money for himself.
In attempting this, he hires two local goons working the motel that he is staying at to shout nonsense in Spanish while he is on the phone with Richard and Elaine. Little does he know that these two goons work for Black Panther (not that one). I think. Or maybe they just decide Harold is worth a lot of money and plan to double cross him. It isn’t made explicitly clear.
To get out of the ransom that morally should be paid (although morals are no object for Richard, really), Richard hires his brother (Sharlto Copley), to find Harold and bring him home.
Are you with me thus far?
Gringo, as you can see, has the most pointlessly convoluted plot as it can manage with its almost two-hour runtime. The film is a dark comedy, I guess, in that it tries to make jokes every once in a while. Although, these jokes never seem to fit the grim and gritty tone that the film winds up having.
In a nutshell, the film wants to be a Coen brothers film when the Coens are at their most sprawling—think The Big Lebowski or Burn After Reading, two films that contain tightly packed, convoluted plots as a means of being farcical. Only, with Gringo the filmmakers forgot what makes the dark comedy of the Coens work: compelling and likeable characters, wit, and a knowing sense of the absurd.
The only noticeably likeable person in the film is Harold, and everything goes wrong for Harold. That the B-plot of the film revolves around two sociopathic, empty-vessel characters in Edgerton and Theron does not do the film any favors.
There are glimmers of hope in this film. Most of it comes in the form of Oyelowo’s character and how he portrays him. Harold is kind in a narrow-sighted way, but at least he is kind. And we root for Harold to finally get the ounce of courage needed to stand up for himself. The monologue he provides, drunkenly to a bartender, about intentionally losing at chess is the best paragraph of dialogue in the entire film.
The rest of the dialogue goes the Tarantino route and almost always lands flat on its face in this pursuit. Characters will share anecdotes that appear random but are meant to make a specific point about the situation, and it always feels unnatural coming out of the actors’ mouths.
There is a relationship that forms near the end of the film (why it is established so late is just another example of how unfocused this movie truly is) that has some hope, as well. Harold and Copley’s Mitch strike up a fast friendship of sorts, and it is the only bit of chemistry in the film that can be found between any two characters.
I found myself wondering why the entire film wasn’t based around these two characters and their predicament. I then realized that that would just be a more needlessly complicated version of In Bruges and quickly went back to souring at the taste of this film.
Gringo is a haphazard mess, to put it plainly. Any juice that can be squeezed out of the dirty sponge of this film is still tainted by the preponderance of gray, soiled water that it sits around. I hate to leave you with such a grimy image, but that is more or less what the film leaves you feeling. Grimy and confused.
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)