David Oyelowo tests his comedy chops in “Gringo” as a mild-mannered middle-management stooge who gets lost south of the border.
His Harold is a nice-guy Nigerian immigrant scraping by and scrapping for his slice of the American dream, which involves an inattentive wife (Thandie Newton), a tiny dog, a mountain of debt and a couple of truly abusive criminal individuals as bosses. Living the dream.
Harold and his bosses, basic bro Richard (Joel Edgerton) and wolf of Wall Street wannabe Elaine (Charlize Theron) work at a nebulous pharmaceutical company that makes a cannabis product called Cannabax. Harold makes regular trips to check on the manufacturing in Mexico, and when Richard and Elaine come along, trouble follows.
An under-the-table deal with a local drug cartel goes south and Harold becomes the No. 1 target. But suddenly, Harold doesn’t want to go home anymore, and thus begins a cycle of Harold faking his own kidnapping, being kidnapped, escaping, being kidnapped again, and so on.
There’s an interesting question of “worth” that circulates around this cycle of kidnapping and negotiation. Harold is dismayed to learn that his company would rather negotiate than pay a full ransom for him, and that they’ve let their kidnapping insurance lapse. When Harold continually evades capture, he suddenly accrues more worth because he’s scarce. It’s a fascinating idea that’s explored with far more depth and nuance in the Danish drama “A Hijacking.”
Everything about “Gringo,” directed by Nash Edgerton, is incredibly lackluster. Even the cinematography in the mostly middling action-comedy is dark and dim, as if everything’s covered in a layer of dust. Oyelowo is quite endearing and funny as Harold, but he’s given little to work with.
Then there are the completely superfluous elements. Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway show up as a pair of American tourists — he’s smuggling Cannabax out of Mexico and she’s his unknowing girlfriend. The only purpose for this subplot seems to be Sunny (Seyfried) befriending Harold for a short while. How can every scene be both unnecessary and dull?
“Gringo” bills itself as a dark comedy because it’s very violent (there’s almost no regard for human life, just Harold’s) and because Theron’s corporate piranha Elaine says a lot of shockingly horrible things — racist, sexist, fat-shaming horrible things. Her worldview is the definition of the phrase “punching down.” Writers Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone seem to think this makes her edgy, or tough, or admirable. If her character had any arc it might make sense, but she doesn’t.
Dark comedy is a difficult needle to thread, and one absolutely necessary quality to do it well is intelligence. But the treatment of Elaine isn’t smart at all, just sensationalist and shocking. This “Gringo” is better off staying underground.
Rating: R, for language throughout, violence and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release