How do you put Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, David Oyelowo, Thandie Newton, Amanda Seyfried and Sharlto Copley in what’s supposed to be a mix of black comedy and crime thriller — and utterly waste them? If you’re director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother and director of the taut 2008 neo-noir The Square), you take Gringo, an overly convoluted, half-baked script by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, and shoot it like you think it’s the most ultra-hip you’ve ever seen.
Sadly, however, the poorly conceived characters, dank cinematography, bog-slow pacing and a self-conscious attempt to be cleverer than it is leave the movie stranded somewhere south of the border between good movies and bad.
The normally solid Oyelowo (Selma) visibly struggles with his underwritten character, Harold Soyinka, a rather mild executive in a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company who must take a business trip to Mexico with his mercenary bosses Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron). Once there, Harold learns a great many things: 1) his bosses are selling a bioengineered form of marijuana to a local drug lord named, believe it or not, the Black Panther; 2) those same bosses are planning to fire Harold as soon as they return from the trip, despite assurances to the contrary; and 3) Harold’s no-good wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) is having an affair — with, as it turns out, Richard.
With his life crumbling around him, Harold then gets kidnapped — or does he? While Richard hires his one-time actual mercenary brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), who’s now doing humanitarian work in Haiti, to head down to Mexico and find Harold, the latter discovers that getting oneself kidnapped is a lot more complicated than it might seem.
As is this screenplay: clearly desperate to create their own take on the kind of “zany” comedy/thriller where the weird hijinks are punctuated by ribald dialogue or moments of shocking violence, the writers overload the story with too many underserved characters, too many switchbacks and twists, and not enough of anything that seems remotely funny or suspenseful.
There’s almost no reason for, say, Amanda Seyfried to be in this movie — as a sweet-natured young woman who briefly befriends Harold while unknowingly accompanying her also superfluous boyfriend on a drug run to Mexico — except that the writers thought they should have a “nice girl” in the picture alongside the others.
Indeed, it’s the other major female characters that get it the worst: Theron’s seductive corporate exec is supposed to be all cold business even while saying the raunchiest things, while Newton should feel insulted for being hired as the soul-sucking, money-grabbing wife who’s ruining her husband’s life (the conclusion of her “arc,” as it were, is especially offensive). But no one here, except perhaps the still dignified Oyelowo, makes it out of this one looking particularly good.
When you can see them, that is. Edgerton and cinematographer Edu Grau shoot the whole thing in a kind of murky half-light, as if hoping that making the audience strain to see what’s happening might help them skate past the story’s inconsistencies and non-sequiturs. Actors and sequences reappear and disappear, while the characters roam all over the place in terms of motivations and abilities (for such a mild-mannered fellow, Harold turns out to be a pretty damn good shot, for example).
One can stuff a movie with terrific actors, crazy story turns, cartel drug lords, smoldering corporate execs, politically incorrect dialogue and quirky, tic-filled subplots, but whatever picture Nash Edgerton, his writers and his cast think they’re making, Gringo is not that film.
Gringo is out in theaters Friday (March 9).