Gringo isn’t awful but it’s not very good either. Unlike last week’s Game Night, a movie that did nearly everything right, Gringo somehow manages to get nearly everything wrong. This movie isn’t just not funny; it’s dull.
Dark comedies demand a laser like focus and an adept feel for when to cross the line. Nash Edgerton has no problem crossing the line but he doesn’t seem to understand when or why it should be done. The script by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone wants its characters and its jokes to be vicious. They are not vicious, however…they are just mean. Mean people can be funny but we have to understand them and we have to recognize them.
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron) are the C.E.Os of a company, Cannabax, that has developed a weed pill of sorts. They grow their weed in Mexico, and in the early days of the business, sold a portion of their inventory to the local cartel, ran by Villegas (Carlos Corona) ‘The Black Panther’. Enter Harold (David Oyelowo), Richard’s friend, and subordinate.
Harold is a man teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton). His job is to be the liaison between Cannabax’s American headquarters and the Mexico plant. He is utterly clueless of his friend’s history of supplying the local cartel.
All of this sets a stage for double crosses, triple crosses, faked kidnappings that turn into real kidnappings, betrayal, and twists and turns that I’m afraid never amount to a hill of beans. For all the busy work and intricate character alliances Stone and Tambakis have for their characters, Gringo always feels as if it’s jogging in place. Words are said and actions is taken, people are hurt and rewarded, and yet none of it matters.
Gringo wants to be biting but has nothing to say, so his bite is meaningless. It’s not illustrative so much as petty. His characters are mean when they should be cruel. Villegas, for example quizzes everyone brought before him about the Beatles. It’s a funny concept and it might have worked if if these moments weren’t followed by acts of sudden violence or torture, often times by characters we’ve grown to like or at least hope to like.
Edgerton and his cinematographers Natasha Braier and Eduard Grau shoot the movie in a drab featureless way. Part of the problem the Villegas scenes don’t work is because it’s lit and shot like a straightforward drama, but without the heft and depth in the shot. The humor is dark but so is the lighting as a result there’s no real contrast.
Joel Edgerton’s Richard is a sleazeball who’s never really all that convincing as a irredeemable bastard. A man who finds himself, actively chased by both Bonnie and Elaine. The women are so infatuated with him, but it’s never given any clear reason as to why. Edgerton, is not an unattractive man, but his Richard lacks any kind of charisma or magnetism. So we’re left wondering why these women care so much about him.
If not for Oyelowo and Theron, Gringo may well have been interminable. Oyelowo plays Harold as sort of the put upon every man who can’t catch a break. His Harold sings along to “Get Jiggy With It” while stuck in traffic, he is going into debt to support his wife whom he loves unequivocally. Of all the characters in Gringo Harold is the most decent one. Oyelowo plays Harold with a sweet unaffected charm about him, a perfect sad sack without ever being depressing. The few times I laughed were usually because of Oyelowo and his earnest attempts at some kind of respect.
Charlize Theron’s Elaine deserves not just a better script, but a better movie. Of all the morally chaotic characters, Theron’s Elaine is the one who strikes the perfect balance. Once, while at dinner with Richard, she idly says someone should put Harold out of his misery, “Like literally put him out of his misery.” So when the news that Harold is kidnapped reaches them Richard wonders if maybe this isn’t the answer he and Elaine were hoping for. Elaine looks at Richard stunned. When faced with her own words she rolls her eyes. “I said literally, as in ‘literally’ Richard. Everyone says literally these days it doesn’t mean anything.”
Opportunistic and blunt, Theron’s Elaine is a Tasmanian devil. She has scruples but she only knows what they are when she brushes up against them. When she is in the bar talking with Jerry (Alan Ruck) about the sale of Cannabax and it’s merger she all but dares Jerry to expose himself to her. But since Jerry met her at the bar and declined to talk business she is merely calling his bluff. Elaine is a woman who recognizes her beauty and uses her femininity to get what she needs but she’s not above using it as a weapon on men who think they have a right to it.
Had Edgerton and his writers struck a more nihilistic tone, maybe Gringo would have worked. After all, if everything is ultimately meaningless and the characters vindictive and petty, we wouldn’t mind so much. Gringo is a movie that enjoys showing us despicable people but in a way that we know they will be punished for it later on. Harold’s professional and personal life may be falling apart, though we know by the end he will have been rewarded in either a spiritual or financial sense. In other words, it never commits to its moral nihilism. We never once really feel as if the good guys won’t win out in some fashion.
I enjoyed the little relationship that developed between Harold and Mitch (Sharlto Copley), Richard’s brother and ex-mercenary. When Mitch has a gun to Harold’s head, Harold cries out in prayer and fear to God to save him. The two then ensue into a pseudo philosophical debate about the existence of something bigger than themselves, but it’s brief and barely lasts a whole scene. But it was a spark of something interesting, a little glance into the heart of something more than just a bunch of people shooting at each other in Mexico.
Gringo is never as awful as it could be—it has a much too talented cast for that to happen. Ultimately Gringo has no opinions on anything, even itself. I don’t mind movies that don’t have anything to say, but they should at the very least be fun.