A film review by Craig J. Koban June 28, 2018


2018, R, 110 mins.


David Oyelowo as Harold Soyinka  /  Amanda Seyfried as Sunny  /  Paris Jackson as Penny  /  Diego Cataño as Ronaldo  /  Joel Edgerton as Richard Rusk  /  Charlize Theron as Elaine Markinson  /  Thandie Newton as Bonnie Soyinka  /  Bashir Salahuddin as Stu  /  Melonie Diaz as Mia  /  Harry Treadaway as Miles  /  Hernan Mendoza as Celerino Sanchez  /  Alan Ruck as Jerry  /  Sharlto Copley as Mitch Rusk

Directed by Nash Edgerton  /  Written by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone




The new Amazon Studios production GRINGO is a crime comedy that's so tonally schizophrenic throughout that I left my screening having no real idea what kind of movie it was really trying to be.  

Disappointingly directed by Australian filmmaker Nash Edgerton - the actor/stuntman turned director that made one of the best least seen noir thrillers of the last decade in 2008's THE SQUARE - GRINGO feels like it's made up of the better regurgitated pieces of previous films that it's trying to heavily borrow from.  Like an aesthetic marriage of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, but done without a modest semblance of narrative and stylistic cohesion, Edgerton's caper never manages to generate ample interest in ways it wants to.  Instead, we are given a grade A quality cast that seems to be giving it their relative all with a screenplay that seems depressingly flat, lifeless, and never once begs for performers of their caliber.   

GRINGO is ambitious, though, in trying to craft a globetrotting yarn that - albeit unsuccessfully - tries to fuse dark humor and serious pathos in its underling tale of corporate business and the drug trafficking game.  There's also something inherently amusing about its plot, that of a decent man that tries to play ethically by the rules in life and work, but faces endlessly amounts of personal failures, which leads to him faking his own kidnapping to stick it to those that are trying to wrong him when he's at his most downtrodden and desperate.  There's something invitingly madcap and macabre about GRINGO's narrative, and the manner that it tries to find humor in one poor soul's emotional collapse could have made for a real nail biting social and business satire.  Unfortunately, Edgerton and company never generate enough laughs with the strange material, nor does it come off as an effectively edgy and dark.  More often than not, GRINGO comes off as a film so inherently messy and aimless that it requires a roadmap to viewers to make some sense of the whole. 



The bright spot in this whole failed enterprise is David Oyelowo, whom previously wowed over audiences and critics with his performance as Martin Luther King in SELMA.  Here, he once again carries the film he occupies, but this time plays a sad sack of a human being driven to mental implosion when the world around him has dealt him a decidedly bad deck.  He plays Harold, who works for Promethium Pharmaceuticals under the scrutinizing and watchful eye of his high ranking boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton, the more famous and well known of the Edgerton brothers).  This CEO is a real piece of work, who's established very early on as a duplicitous minded sex hound that's not afraid to get busy with his second in command, Elaine (Charlize Theron), during the middle of a work day and at the office.  Elaine is no innocent babe in the woods, seeing as she willfully uses her sex appeal and aggressively potty mouthed nature to have her way with just about any high profile client.   

When we are introduced to the mild mannered and noble minded Harold it's revealed via his accountant that he's flat broke because of his wife's (Thandie Newton) reckless spending.  When he arrives at work the same day he's informed by Richard that the two of them and Elaine will be flying to Mexico to deal with the merger of their company with another, but it soon becomes apparent that it's no innocent merger meeting, mostly because Richard's company is in bed with a very powerful and dangerous drug cartel.  With the full understanding that his wife has plunged him into economical and emotional despair (she's also cheating on him with Richard), not to mention that he grows to learn just how disposable he is for the company, Harold decides to fake his own kidnapping to extort money from the bosses he thinks are trying to ruin him.  Unfortunately, Richard's and Elaine's dealings with the aforementioned cartel are catching up with them, and Harold's staged abduction eventually morphs into something more vile that legitimately threatens his well being and his company's future.   

If there is one solitary reason to sit through GRINGO then it would be for Oyelowo's rather winning performance as his human punching bag that grows increasingly browbeaten by the mental and physical toil that his trip dumps on him.  Especially after seeing him give such performances of calm spoken authority before, it's a modest pleasure to see the British actor cut loose and a craft a portrait of his jaded and vulnerable protagonist that traverses down every emotional extreme.  Watching Harold get repeatedly spit on over and over again in GRINGO allows for the film to maintain some semblance of audience sympathy and buy in with his nightmarishly plight.  Even when the scripting veers way, way off course to the point of inspiring baffling confusion, Oyelow's work here is the glue that keeps the off balance and all over the map GRINGO together.  You truly feel for Harold as a innocent dope that pathetically gets in over his head with just about everything around him.   

I only wished, though, that GRINGO spent more time fleshing out the myriad of characters that surround Harold, some of which are sketchily developed, whereas others come off like they haphazardly got dropped off from a whole other movie altogether.  Joel Edgerton is capable of being one of our finest understated actors, but as his lecherous CEO he never really comes off as a tangible and scary threat.  His partner in crime in Theron chews scenery with a bit more relish and enthusiasm, but you rarely gain an impression of who Elaine really is, where she came from, and how she ended up with Richard.  Theron has a field day in a couple of key scenes, but she's given such a one note character on the page that it's a miracle that the production even nabbed the Oscar winning actress in the first place.  Thandie Newton seems wasted in a terrible throwaway role as Harold's cheating wife, and Richard's brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) - a former mercenary that's trying to go straight, but is brought back over to the dark side in trying to deal with his sibling's problem with Richard - has a few moments of inspired lunacy that plays up to the actor's strengths, but is also a woefully underwritten character that feels hesitantly inserted into the film.  And I don't have the foggiest idea why Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway show up here as a traveling American couple that inexplicably get caught up in all of this. 

Scattershot would be the best way to describe the ultimate failings of GRINGO.  The plot bobs and weaves awkwardly from one scene to the next - sometimes punctuated with scenes of barbaric violence that seem out of place with the comedic moments that build up to them - and, in the initial stages, it takes literally forever for the movie to actually build to something and command out investment.  Sometimes, Edgerton uses flashy style and non-linear scripting in an effort to cover up for the overall storytelling deficiencies on display (the flashback structure to the film also does it no favors, only exacerbating its fractured and dysfunctional nature).  And when all is said and done, GRINGO never comes together as either a funny comedy or a gripping crime thriller; it always seems stuck in neutral gear trying to find a way to jump start the story into drive and keep momentum moving.  And considering that I thought THE SQUARE was one of the best films of its respective year as a mercilessly effective thriller, I was genuinely pumped to see what Nash Edgerton would do next behind the camera.  Both he and the impressively accomplished cast around him seem woefully overqualified for the jumbled up, poorly developed, focus-free, and unavoidably forgettable mess that is GRINGO.   

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