Some films are good, some are bad and some are just confounding. It’s now been a full 24 hours since I first viewed “Gringo,” and to be quite honest, I’m still not sure if I could tell you what it’s about. Each time I attempt to classify it, the words that appear on the page before me just simply do not match the film I viewed. I could call it a comedy, except none of its jokes deserved more than a polite grimace. I could call it a thriller, but I found myself looking at my watch about 15 minutes into the film. It could be mistaken for a bad Tarantino ripoff, but “Gringo” makes “The Boondock Saints” look like a part of the modern film canon. To put it simply, “Gringo” is a film so outside the window of quality filmmaking, its very existence is incredible.
“Gringo” is the story of a down-on-his-luck middle management pharmaceutical employee, Harold, who plots an elaborate scheme to fake his own kidnapping by a Mexican cartel in order to extort his company’s insurance policy for himself before the company goes through with a merger that will cost Harold his job. Except he’s then captured by an actual cartel who want to extort more pharmaceuticals from Harold’s boss, the same pharmaceuticals that a hapless British guitar store worker is also hoping to steal for a local drug dealer in exchange for $20,000. Add in three — count ‘em, three — romantic subplots, another subplot involving copulation as a metaphor for free market economics, and Charlize Theron doing an outrageously terrible Amy Dunne impersonation, and you basically have the makings of four interesting films all blended together into one terrible sludgefest. Overstuffed, uninspired and altogether unoriginal, “Gringo” never knows whether it wants to be “True Romance” on speed or “Breaking Bad” for the big screen, and, without a clear identity, the film devolves into a sprawling mess so deeply flawed as to render itself nearly unwatchable.
“Gringo” could possibly survive its cliche-ridden, madcap plot premise if the writing had any sense of humor or self-awareness. Unfortunately, formulaic doesn’t even begin to describe this script. Every line uttered by a character is either dripping with cliche or steeped in melodrama without a shred of subtlety to be found. A film that utilizes not one, but two gorilla-based metaphors and an extended soliloquy about the relative righteousness of Biblical figures Peter and Judas is a movie unconcerned with any semblance of nuance. Worse still, the movie’s attempts at humor sound as though screenwriter Matthew Stone got stuck in a 2008 Jason Bateman rom-com, with every vulgar joke cratering the screen with its dullness. Just like its plot devices, the movie’s script is a patchwork of ideas done better a million times before, with its cliched stitches still showing.
The results aren’t much better on the directing front. Nash Edgerton is the definition of a workman filmmaker — no artistic flourishes, little in the way of creative framing, every shot dedicated to showing the action and moving on to the next. It’s a fast food approach to directing — fine in a pinch, but rarely satisfying after it’s over. Edgerton’s direction simply contributes to the movie’s overall sense of blandness. It adds confusion to the already convoluted plot and script in refusing to give the film any sense of purpose.
The one redeeming aspect of “Gringo” is that its star, David Oyelowo, gives his all to the performance. Typically known for his dramatic turns in films like “Selma,” here, Oyelowo gets to show off his comedic chops to great effect. Any chuckles “Gringo” elicited from me were rooted in Oyelowo’s outrageous physical humor and exaggerated, almost cartoonish, behavior. Never one to shy away from range, Oyelowo also delivers a solid dramatic performance. It is that pitch-perfect mix of humor and emotion that makes Oyelowo’s Harold the one bright spot among this heap of dullness. As for the rest of the cast, performances range from standard-issue (Joel Edgerton’s typical pompous dunce act as Harold’s boss Richard) to embarrassingly overwrought (Charlize Theron’s aforementioned Dollar General femme fatale routine). Even the typically reliable Amanda Seyfried seems like she’s phoning it in, though given the competition, Seyfried’s performance is surely second only to Oyelowo’s. Despite Oyelowo’s charismatic rendition of the hapless Harold, one strong performance can’t give the cast enough purpose to make up for lackluster writing and direction.
In an age where studios only greenlight projects with men in capes or sequels to glorified set pieces by Michael Bay, it’s truly astonishing a film like “Gringo” even exists. Although it features a strong turn from Oyelowo, the overstuffed and undercooked “Gringo” can’t overcome its tired, confusing premise, hackneyed script and boring direction. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that, given the sheer amount of moving pieces at work in the film, it ends up being just boring and forgettable. “Gringo” is baffling, but the one thing I do know is this: save your dollars and don’t cross the border into this film’s outrageous territory.
Contact Zak Sharif at zsharif ‘at’ stanford.edu.