Friday, March 9, 2018

Gringo: South of the border fiasco

Gringo (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity, violence and sexual content

By Derrick Bang

If the rest of this film were as accomplished as David Oyelowo’s starring performance, it would be far more entertaining.

Who knew Oyelowo could be so adorable and laugh-out-loud hilarious? It’s quite a surprise from the actor who brought such dignity to memorable roles in A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe and Selma (the latter playing no less than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Harold (David Oyelowo, left) grows increasingly suspicious when his bosses —
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron) — insist on joining him for what
should be a routine visit to their pharmaceutical company's Mexican manufacturing plant.
Clearly, true acting talent knows no genre boundaries.

Alas, Oyelowo is by far the best part of Gringo, which otherwise is a mess. Scripters Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis appear to be going for the uneasy blend of crime thriller and dark-dark-dark comedy that was pulled off so brilliantly by 1993’s True Romance, but that’s a hard act to duplicate. That film was scripted by Quentin Tarantino, and — frankly — Stone and Tambakis aren’t fit to clean the keys of his laptop.

The elements are in place here; Stone and Tambakis simply don’t know how to blend the ingredients into a suitably tasty final product. They badly misjudge some character development, overlook some obvious plot twists, and build to a resolution with at least one (perhaps two) deeply unsatisfying outcomes.

Nash Edgerton’s direction doesn’t help; his handling of the film’s tone is all over the map, and he lets co-star Charlize Theron get away with a truly dreadful performance (something I wasn’t aware she was capable of). Edgerton is a former stunt man and director of video shorts with only one prior big-screen feature to his credit — 2008’s so-so The Square — and I can’t help wondering if his presence here has less to do with having paid sufficient dues, and more to do with his relationship to better-known younger brother Joel Edgerton, who also co-stars in this uneven thriller.

In Hollywood, it truly does pay to have friends in high places.

The story is complicated, so get out your notebooks:

Harold Soyinka, an intelligent but naïvely loyal manager at the pharmaceuticals firm Promethium, is blindly unaware that his boss and (supposed) best friend, Richard Rusk (Edgerton), is a rapacious corporate shark who is cheerfully willing to screw anybody in service of further fattening his bank account. Indeed, Richard is screwing company co-owner Elaine Markinson (Theron), a jaw-droppingly crass, vulgar and profane bitch who casually employs sex as a weapon.

Theron’s initial scenes are a perfect example of Nash Edgerton’s poor direction. Her crude, bad-mannered put-downs and liberal F-bombs look and sound contrived, as if Theron isn’t comfortable delivering them, or doesn’t believe in her character ... or something. Whatever the reason, her performance is off-kilter, and remains so; the film never recovers from Elaine’s behavior.

Richard also is sleeping with Harold’s wife, Bonnie (a miscast and badly used Thandie Newton), because ... well, just because. Neither Bonnie nor this sidebar affair is well developed.

At some point in the recent past, Richard and Elaine “solved” a cash-flow problem by supplying drugs from their Mexican-based manufacturing plant to local cartel head Villegas (Carlos Corona), better known as — I’m not making this up — The Black Panther. He’s a very, very, very bad man, as evidenced by his willingness to have an underling’s big toe sliced off with a tree lopper: a wholly unnecessary moment of on-camera gore that further demonstrates Nash Edgerton’s ham-fisted tendencies.

So now, on the verge of a profitable merger strengthened by Promethium’s development of the world’s first marijuana pill, Richard and Elaine instruct their Mexican plant manager to stop dealing with Villegas. Easy to say, impossible to comply with, although Richard and Elaine seem oblivious to this: difficult to accept, even in this sort of story, and a further indication of the tone-deaf script.

Harold, also present on this corporate trip to Mexico, finally puts all the pieces together and realizes the overwhelming degree to which he has been lied to, cheated and otherwise shafted. He therefore concocts a half-baked scheme to fake his kidnapping by Mexican thugs, hoping to extort a $5 million ransom from Richard, and wholly unaware that — for reasons having more to do with proximity than plot logic — Villegas genuinely does intend to kidnap him.


Back in the States, we’ve seen music store manager Miles (Harry Treadaway) talked into becoming a drug mule during a “quick and easy” trip to Mexico. He’s even allowed to bring along his sweetly innocent girlfriend, the aptly named Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), who — in one of the film’s genuinely amusing lines — is derisively dubbed “Guitar-Shop Barbie.”

Miles and Sunny wind up at the same fleabag Mexican hotel where Harold, in an adjacent room, hatches his ill-advised plot.

But wait, there’s more!

Richard, convinced that “rescuing” Harold (who isn’t yet in actual trouble, but soon will be) would be in the best interest of pre-merger publicity, coaxes his former mercenary-for-hire-turned-aid worker brother, Mitch (Sharlto Copley), into mounting an “extraction mission.”

Additional sidebar characters include Richard’s nosy secretary (Melonie Diaz, as Mia); a debonair but somehow sinister hotel manager (Yul Vazquez, as Angel); and the numb-nuts brothers who run the aforementioned fleabag hotel (Diego Cataño and Rodrigo Corea, as Ronaldo and Ernesto).

The driving plot point amid all this chaos is that Harold and (to a lesser degree) Sunny are two innocents tossed into this pool of venal, vicious, back-stabbing and soul-sucking sharks ... and whether they can survive the ensuing ordeal. Trouble is, Harold and Sunny are almost too blindly gullible and — let’s go there — stupid to earn our sympathy.

Seyfried, in particular, has an impossibly hard time making Sunny anything but a New Age goody-two-shoes with an eye-rollingly chipper view of life (despite repeated evidence to the contrary). Honestly, you expect her to break into song while surrounded by animated Disney birds.

Oyelowo, on the other hand, surmounts all character contrivance and owns his role. I’d hate to think any adults this credulous and hopelessly unsophisticated actually navigate our mean streets ... but if such a person exists, Oyelowo persuasively depicts that guy. The worse things get, the more credibly hilarious he becomes. He single-handedly drags this film up from the seventh circle of cinematic hell to ... well, at least the fourth or third circle.

Joel Edgerton phones in his performance, without a trace of the far better acting chops he’s simultaneously demonstrating in Red Sparrow. (Once again, we have to blame his director brother.) Treadaway is reasonably convincingly as an opportunistic twit. Copley, as always, is a hoot. We see him too seldom, and usually only in films made by fellow South African Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium and Chappie).

Copley’s character doesn’t surface until well into these muddled proceedings, and he adds some welcome spirit.

The various technical credits are adequate, although the film’s pacing isn’t helped by the three (!) credited editors: Luke Doolan, David Rennie and Tatiana S. Riegel. Feels like too many cooks spoiled the soup.

A final passing observation: Nash Edgerton and his writers don’t seem to think much of Mexico or its people, given a storyline that luxuriates in cultural character assassination. That also won’t play well, given our current socio-political environment.

We viewers — and Oyelowo — deserved better.

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