Deeply cynical, hugely problematic and often very funny, Gringo is one of the stranger mainstream releases of 2018.
At times a corporate satire, a drug comedy, an action-packed thriller and a grim crime drama, Gringo is definitely a mess, but it’s got a whole lot to recommend.
David Oyelowo, often penned in to historical dramas like Selma, A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe, gets a chance to show his comedic chops as Harold, a put-upon middle manager in the midst of personal and professional crises. He’s a dutiful worker bee whose adherence to the rules has gotten him nowhere. He’s likely to be pushed out after a merger goes through and his wife (Thandie Newton, given nothing to do) is more interested in racking up credit card debt than showing him affection.
His bosses (Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton) won’t think twice about selling him out. When Harold is kidnapped in Mexico, they think more about ways they can get out of paying the ransom than trying to bring him home safely.
But Harold is smarter and tougher than he lets on, which leads to clever twists I won’t reveal here. Gringo has way too much going on, including a tentative romance between Harold’s bosses. Both Theron and Edgerton are excellent playing truly reprehensible people dancing around their mutual hatred/attraction. There’s also an extraction expert/mercenary played by Sharlto Copley, who’s willing to change his mission from Harold’s salvation to his execution for the right price.
Gringo can be wildly funny and horrifyingly violent, often in the same scene. A cartel leader tests new associates by asking them their favorite Beatles album, which makes for funny pop culture discussion, but then he’ll have his thugs cut one of their toes off with a hedge clipper. And it’s got a surprisingly deep conversation about God that’s interrupted when one of the participants gets hit by a car.
Inconsistency is its biggest problem as a movie, but its depiction of Mexico is arguably even more troublesome. Nearly every Mexican character is either a criminal or wants to be one, looking to rip off or kill any Americans who cross their paths. Almost all the characters in Gringo are bad or truly awful, but that’s not an excuse.
With its cast of characters willing to kill or compromise their integrity for a whole bunch of nothing, I was reminded of the Coen Brothers’ CIA farce Burn After Reading. With its Mexican setting and big movie stars in a surreal black comedy, I was reminded of The Mexican. While both films had initial success, both were misunderstood at the time. Gringo is closer in quality to that Julia Roberts vehicle than the underrated Coen Brothers classic, but they share a weird vibe.
Gringo is certainly not destined to become a comedy classic, but it’s a much deeper, weirder and funnier movie than its zany trailer lets on. I’ll take an overstuffed movie like this any day over a pat comedy sequel.