GRINGO – Review
Though it’s here in just a few weeks, Spring’s arrival feels years away. Alright, how about a trip south to much warmer temps. Way south, south of the border in fact. But what if things get a lot hotter than expected? Not just food that’s muy caliente, but the kind of heat you get from getting involved with the wrong crowd. That’s what happens to the title hero of this new caper comedy/ action thriller. This guy’s so out of his element. And though he does have a name, to most of the locals, here’s merely that GRINGO.
The “gringo” in question is mild-mannered Nigerian-born Harold Soyinka (David Oleyowo). He’s sharing a suburban house with his interior designer wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) in those cold Chicago suburbs. On the way to work downtown, Harold has a breakfast meeting with his accountant who explains that he’s not only “cash poor”, he is, in fact, “poor poor”. No worries, Says Harold, he can depend on his middle management job at the pharmaceutical company. Ah, but Mr. CPA informs him of a pretty solid rumor that his firm may be merging with another big drug company (and usually the ax falls on those not at the top). Getting in to work, Harold talks with the company head (Bonnie’s working on his new loft) Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), who tells his ole’ pal not to worry. Oh, and he’s flying down to their factory in Mexico to go over some inventory problems. The two, along with the company’s second in command Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) soon arrive in the much warmer site of operation. The plant is producing a “pot pill”, a tiny green capsule that looks like a vitamin, but packs the punch of primo weed. The inventory problems were a plot between the factory director, Richard, and Elaine to sell that “product’ under the table to a local drug kingpin known as the “Black Panther” (no kidding). This deal will need to be stopped before the merger, of course. Back at the hotel, Harold finds out about the plans to fire him (the old “leave your cell phone on the table to record” trick) and hatches a plan to fake his own kidnapping. He leaves in the middle of the night and checks into a seedy tourist trap in the rough side of town. Along with the two dimwits that run the front desk, Harold calls Richard with the ransom demand (insurance will cover it, of course). Oh, also at the hotel is a young American couple, Miles (Harry Treadaway) and Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), who appear to be on vacation. But Miles is there to nab a few “pot pill” samples for some small-time drug hustlers to copy the formula (Sunny knows nothing of this, naturally). Speaking of that “pill”, the “Panther” doesn’t wish the deal to end (the plant director gets a taste of the Panther’s claws), and decides to grab the formula for himself. But it’s locked up in a safe that can only be opened by…you guessed it…Harold. Oh, it turns out that Richard let the kidnapping insurance lapse, but he does have life insurance on Harold. And so enters Richard’s brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to find Harold, rescue him, then, you know. Looks like Harold’s plan has backfired in a very, very big way.
Sounds pretty convoluted, eh? Well, the double and triple crosses are fairly clear thanks to the lead performance by Oyelowo who brings a real sense of pathos to the standard “patsy” role. But his panic and “sad sack” look mask a man with real smarts and determination. Rather than plunge into despair, we see his mind go into overdrive, his eyes dart about to weigh all of his options. After seeing him in so many heavy dramatic roles, it’s great to see Oyelowo flex his comedy chops. He is very funny, but the film’s comedy MVP is the wonderful Theron finally getting a role to showcase the biting wit we’ve seen on all the TV talk shows (it helps that she’s one of the film’s producers). Her Elaine uses her sexuality aggressively to further her plans, an interesting take on the current conflicts over gender dynamics. In seducing the company’s potential investors, Elaine’s completely in control, her targets both aroused and more than a bit frightened. She’s a voracious blonde barracuda, ready to dispatch anyone who doesn’t satisfy her. What a fabulous character, one that allows Theron to dominate every scene and energize the film’s sometimes sagging pace. I’d love a spinoff sequel to see her take on and take out more dimwitted dupes (she’s more than a step ahead, always). Though he’s her frequent bedroom toy, Edgerton as the blustering Richard, is merely a stepping stone (and about as smart as one). He’s the perfect preening business “bro”, with no loyalties or scruples. As his brother with morals, Copley dials down his usual mania and delivers an interesting twist on the thriller “hit man”. Unfortunately Newton and Seyfried don’t have much to do as the aloof wife and the bright-eyed innocent, though Sunny’s sweet demeanor is probably meant as an antidote to the toxic Elaine (not hardly).
Kudos are earned by director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother) for keeping all the “plates spinning”, meshing all the conflicting plotlines into a fairly coherent dark, nearly “pitch black” comedy. Still the script from Anthony Tambakis and Mattheew Stone could have lost a couple of subplots (the movie seems to put on the brakes too often for the meandering Miles and Sunny story). This really derails the momentum, draining its energy just as things should be heating up. And couldn’t they have changed the kingpin’s street name (every time I hear BP, I just thought of the much better film that’s probably just down the hallway at your local multiplex)? Still, there are some solid laughs thanks to the inspired comic work from Oyelowo and the marvelous magnetic “man-eater” played to perfection by Theron. Those two make the GRINGO a good, not quite great, escape from the Winter movie blues.
3.5 Out of 5