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.