Gringo is a collection of familiar scenes acted out by characters straight off the imaginary screenwriter’s shelf and not executed nearly well or energetically enough to overcome its jumbled plotting and themes. The fact that the titular ‘gringo’ (slang for an American) is actually Nigerian in the film is a pretty clear sign of how much attention the creators actually paid.
We follow Harold (David Oyelowo) a meek, mild mannered executive at a pharmaceutical company, as his scummy bosses, Richard and Elaine (Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron) head down to Mexico to try and cover up some of their illegal dealings with a local drug lord in preparation for a corporate merger. When Harold realises his bosses are going to hang him out to dry in the merger, he stages his own kidnapping, unaware that the drug lord actually wants to kidnap him. And, of course, through miscommunications and misunderstandings, more characters are drawn in and chaos unfolds.
Or at least, that should be the idea. The film draws on the familiar crime caper genre, which is, in turn, a variation on the old comedy of errors. The only difference from those old films is that it tends to involve botched drug deals rather than social misunderstandings, and someone is required to be shot in the head every 20 minutes or so. The issue is that the film never feels chaotic. We never get the sense that everything’s going horribly wrong. Or that anything is really happening.
It’s dangerous to judge films on what you think they were supposed to do, but characters keep referencing the ‘shitshow’ Harold’s disappearance created. We never see it. The whole film proceeds at a sedate pace, cutting to scenes where characters calmly reference the apparent chaos that never actually occurs on screen. Even in the build-up to the climax, we get a long, strange scene where Elaine tries to encourage someone to expose themselves in the middle of a bar (it doesn’t make any more sense in context). Rather than a ticking time bomb, it feels more like a slowly deflating soufflé.
It doesn’t help that these characters are all straight off the shelf, relying on lazy archetypes and stereotypes. The Nigerian character, of course, has an uncle who does the email scamming Nigeria is unfortunately infamous for. The Mexican drug lord uses his real name, hands out business cards and risks everything for a new formula. Even a cursory understanding of the drug industry should tell you that that’s not what happens. And of course, he asks cryptic pop-culture questions before committing acts of violence (that a Mexican drug lord is obsessed with the Beatles rather than, well, any Mexican band should tell you how much effort they put into the character). Come to think of it, every Mexican character is somehow in on the drug trade, which is also just lazy storytelling.
The woman executive is, of course, sleeping her way to the top. This would have been a tired and offensive character in about 1992. There are the bungling amateur kidnappers. There’s an inexplicably British drug mule and his wide-eyed girlfriend (casting Amanda Seyfried as a wide eyed girl seems a bit too literal to me), the hardened merc who’s constantly blindsided when the plot needs him to be, and the obnoxious executive who quotes Sun Tzu and does cross fit.
Edgerton does do a really good job as Richard, someone who’s vicious in a banal way, but it leaves a lot of questions about Harold. He’s under the impression that Richard is his friend, and realising that he isn’t is the film’s turning point in the first act. They reference a friendship that’s more than a decade old, but Richard is so awful in every scene, in every line and every action that the only way you can assume Harold missed it is if he was friends with someone he’d never looked at or listened to before the film starts.
In fact, Harold is inactive through the whole movie. Even after his big turnaround in the first act, he’s mostly just someone that stuff happens to. Nothing really wrong with that, people having effects beyond their actions can make for great storytelling, but, like I said, we never feel the effects of what he did. We spend most of our time hanging around him, watching him not react to things that aren’t happening.
The lack of energy is not the only problem the film has. On a technical level, it just feels half done. Characters disappear for good chunks of the movie only to suddenly reappear, characters seem to forget things we’ve watched them be told for another reveal later on, as if two drafts had been mashed together, the geography of the shootouts is comically unclear and requires a lot of cheats (competent characters just forgetting to check things, for instance) and a lot of interstitial scenes are missing. For instance, at one point, Harold is about to be put on a plane. He runs away, gets to the car park, and is stopped again. This requires new passports and a new plan, though this is never explained.
As a result, with the film’s basic cause and effect story telling underdeveloped, it’s no surprise that any theme or message is utterly bungled. Maybe there’s some point about the parallels between big corporations and criminal empires, or some point about how unfair the rat race is (although the ending implies that the rat race is fine, it’s losing it that’s the problem) but it’s all lost in a very dull movie that has the audacity to end with a fourth wall break. Although, if that’s a joke about daring the audience to find a message in this confused mess, then fair play to them.
Reviewed at Palace Electric