It begins with a frantic, desperate sounding, long distance phone call from hapless Nigerian businessman Harold (David Oyelowo). “I’m somewhere in Mexico with a gun to my head!” he screams down the line. Cut to two days earlier.
In director Nash Edgerton’s farcical black comedy, Gringo, Harold, we soon learn, is in a heap of financial trouble. Currently living in snowy Chicago where he works for a pharmaceutical company, Harold doesn’t know it, but he’s about to have the worst couple of days of his life. First, his home decorator wife, Bonnie (Thandie Newton) is cyphoning off most of the couple’s bank account for an office she doesn’t need. Second, she’s having an affair with her only client. Third, that client just happens to be Harold’s boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton, brother to director Nash). And that’s just the beginning.
During a meeting with his accountant, Harold is told the bad news regarding his non-existent savings. “Are you saying I’m cash poor?” Harold asks, only to be told, no, he’s poor poor. Then things get really bad.
His company has developed a marijuana tablet called Cannabix and is getting ready to release the weed pill commercially in the US. But things are not quite ready. Until America legalizes pot, which the company is anticipating will happen soon, Cannabix is angling for a merger to help with costs. And that means staff reductions. Harold has only heard rumors, but despite assurances from his conniving boss that all is well and everyone at Cannabix will soon be living the good life, he learns from a secretly recorded conversation that he’ll be dumped at the first opportunity.
What follows for Harold is a quick business trip south of the border to visit the factory that manufactures the product. But events will soon circle back to the desperate sounding phone call from the Nigerian gringo in Mexico, kicking off a series of frantic events involving a ruthless drug cartel, a gangster boss who loves The Beatles, a professional (Sharlto Copley) hired to get Harold safely out of the country, smuggling, murder, the DEA, and Harold’s boss seriously considering that things might actually work better if Harold was simply left to disappear in Mexico. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad whirl.
Gringo is fun. It pretty much evaporates the moment you leave the theatre, but for the most part, the comedy works. Oyelowo makes a suitably guileless victim, while everyone around him runs in circles, doing whatever they can to make a fast buck or just get themselves out of the tangled web in which they’re caught, usually of their own making. Particularly amusing is Charlize Theron’s irredeemably mean spirited company partner, Elaine, whose f-bomb laden dialog is so incredibly over-the top vindictive, she just sounds funny whatever she says. When in Mexico while looking at the many pictures of a father’s large family of children pinned to the wall, she remarks (in front of the father), “Do they not sell condoms down here?”
For the record, it’s interesting to note just how international the film really is. Oyelowo is English, born in Oxford, though his Nigerian accent sounds as authentic as they come; Thandie Newton is also English, born in London, yet possesses a pitch perfect American accent. Same with Aussie actor Joel Edgerton and the cast’s two South Africans, Copley and Theron; all successfully sounding as though they were born and bred in the US. Only Amanda Seyfried as the likable Sunny, one of the only truly likable characters in the film without a greedy agenda, is the real thing, born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Film truly is the art of illusion, and everyone in Gringo proves it.
But the film trips itself up. Violence, when graphic, is not funny, and Gringo has several violent moments that makes laughing difficult. There’s humor in hearing a drug lord suddenly declaring that Sgt. Peppers is not The Beatles’ greatest album, but watching the torture of an innocent man as his toe is cut off a few moments later while the victim screams in agony makes the laughter catch in your throat. It’s not so much the act itself, it’s having to see the painful dismemberment in close-up. The image is too realistic; it looses the funny and creates an imbalance. Even though the film’s comedy is intentionally black, where death and gallows humor makes light of the dark side of the human condition, sudden, graphic violence pulls the rug from under you. It’s like someone who can’t take black olives then accidentally bites into one while eating pizza – it ruins everything, and the aftertaste is nasty.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)