Blending comedy and violence is a subtle art. Jordan Peele nailed it with last year’s superb Get Out. The Coen brothers repeatedly nail it. Gringo, the second feature from director Nash Edgerton, finds itself toeing this same kind of line, entertainingly spinning a tale of selfish people who have no idea what they’re doing attempting to get one over on each other in a world with surprise dangers around every corner.
We’re introduced to each of our key players gradually, in seemingly unrelated vignettes that the script neatly meshes together after a bit of a slow first act. Two pharmaceutical executives travel to their Mexico City-based plant to try to convince their supplier to stop selling a portion of their drugs to a certain cartel; an employee of the company tagging along on the trip is worried about his wife overdrafting their credit cards while his job may be in jeopardy following a potential merger; a young couple plan a vacation to Mexico so that the lad, unbeknownst to his girlfriend, can transport a few drugs across the border; and… there it is.
Our hero, the titular “gringo” Harold Soyinka (played with hilarious manic energy by David Oyelowo) is a junior employee of a pharmaceutical giant run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton, brother of Nash) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron). As a Nigerian immigrant whose father always taught him to be a good person and play by the rules, he’s tragically out of place amongst the two high-powered executives regularly sleeping with each other and pulling any strings they can to make more money for the company, but he’s the only one who knows the ins and outs of their Mexico City-based facilities. Because of this, he’s targeted by a cartel after Rusk and Markinson tell the man who runs their lab to stop selling a portion of their product to a boss known as “the Black Panther” (no relation) and spends the rest of the movie pinballing between various groups of people who all want to cut a deal. Or, in the case of Amanda Seyfried’s character Sunny, the only other truly good person in the group, just want him to get out of this alive.
The movie works primarily because of its cast, which doesn’t have a single weak link. Oyelowo is hysterical (in multiple senses of the word) as the hapless Harold, looking on in bewilderment at people who won’t stop talking to him in proverbs featuring gorillas and bananas, and, somehow, repeatedly surviving situations in which any normal person following the laws of physics would have perished. The poor guy is in at least two car crashes. (Speaking of which, the slickly filmed car chases in this are welcome jolts of energy after some slow buildup, and cement Nash Edgerton as a capable action director.)
Joel Edgerton and Theron make a terrifyingly greedy pair, the Team Rocket to Oyelowo’s Ash Ketchum, always trying to figure out any way to exploit a good man who is only trying to do his best. Thandie Newton is the only actor who is outright wasted, but even she, being Thandie Newton, makes the most of the scenes she gets. Elsewhere are Harry Treadaway, whom you may remember as Penny Dreadful’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein, as the reluctant drug mule and pretty bad boyfriend, Seyfried as his unwitting accomplice, Yul Vasquez as a steely-eyed bodyguard who’s a little more than he seems, and Narcos’ Diego Cataño and Rodrigo Corea as two brothers who share what might be the funniest scene in the entire movie. Sharlto Copley is gifted with the role of Mitch Rusk (what a name), a reformed mercenary into spiritualism whom his pharma bro brother employs to get Harold back to the States, and spends the whole movie with a fringed bandanna tied around his neck looking and acting like he accidentally walked off the set of Tomb Raider.
The cast, being a large ensemble made up entirely of great actors, runs some problems typical of movies of its ilk. The three female characters, for instance, are pretty much defined by which of the men they’re currently in relationships with: Seyfried is the clueless girlfriend, Newton is the unfaithful wife, Theron is the vampy, foul-mouthed HBIC regularly having sex with her fellow pharmaceutical executive. All of these women have easily found better parts to play in more prestige projects. Theron’s role, yes, promotes the unhealthy stereotype of powerful women only getting what they want by flirting with their higher-ups, but, look, I loved it. She reapplies her cherry red lipstick the way a Disney villainess or a Parent Trap stepmom might. She interrupts a midnight tryst just by walking in and sitting on the couch. She’s the kind of woman who wears a black bra under a sheer white blouse to her place of work.
At many points the movie strays dangerously close to Mexico-is-a-terrible-place-full-of-kidnappers-and-drugs territory and overall it’s an unflattering depiction of the country. The only Mexican characters are drug cartel members, taxi drivers, pharmaceutical lab employees, and hotel managers. Without spoiling anything, there is a Hispanic hero who appears later on, but he’s only present for a few scenes.
Gringo is also relatively low on gore for a movie about drug cartels, save for a few choice headshots and one shriek-inducing scene involving a toe and a pair of shears. It frequently reminded me of Burn After Reading or a Shane Black movie with its mix of sudden violence with a pinch of absurdity, just enough to keep the stakes low while flinging the hapless “gringo” back and forth between the young American couple, a pair of Mexican brothers eager to make some money off his ransom, and Copley’s bounty hunter. It’s not a movie with a lot more to say aside from “good people will get what they deserve and bad people will get their comeuppance” (spoiler alert, I guess), but it’s an especially fun dark comedy from a director and cast who are clearly having a good time allowing themselves to let loose.