Sometimes it’s more fun not to have heroes in your movie. Case in point: Gringo, the latest from Australian-born stuntman/coordinator Nash Edgerton, the brother of actor and sometime-filmmaker Joel Edgerton (who stars in this film). Nash is a filmmaker in his own right; he has a great number of phenomenal shorts and his feature The Square is quite good as well. Gringo is populated almost entirely by bad people—greedy corporate assholes, corruptible government types, drug dealers, and others that don’t even fit into a category. The one guy who doesn’t fit that description is Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a middle-management guy for a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company about to go public who is so gullible and unsuspecting that he’s a pushover waiting for the big push that knocks him out of the game entirely.
His slick-talking, toxic-male boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton), regularly sends Harold down to their Mexican factory to check on things, but this time around Richard and the company’s most fearsome piranha, Elaine (Charlize Theron), are accompanying him to secretly put an end to a little arrangement they have going on in Mexico that even Harold doesn’t know about. When they do, it sets off a chain reaction in Mexico that puts poor Harold in a world of danger with a drug lord and just about anyone else who believes they can make a buck from kidnapping (or pretending to kidnap) this nerdy pencil pusher.
From a screenplay by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, Gringo also brings in a host of interesting, often quite funny, supporting players, including Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway as a young couple seemingly on vacation in Mexico (when in fact the boyfriend is doing a deal of his own); Sharlto Copley as Richard’s mercenary-turned-relief worker brother; Melanie Diaz as Richard’s bewildered receptionist; Thandie Newton as Harold’s deceitful wife; Yul Vazquez as Harold’s driver with a few secrets of his own; Carlos Corona as the aforementioned drug kingpin who also loves the Beatles and is nicknamed Black Panther (not related); and even model Paris Jackson makes an appearance.
Edgerton’s gift as a director is keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and still making all of his story threads come together in a way that makes sense and is actually quite clever. He has faith that his actors will do what is necessary to solidify the personalities of their characters, even if that means audiences will likely hate them. He’s actually counting on that. While Richard is a manipulative, lying bastard, he’s nothing compared to Elaine, who uses a combination of sex and cruelty to advance herself in the workplace and in her clandestine affair with Richard, who himself is sleeping with someone else. And then there’s Harold, whose journey to becoming less dopey and more self-sufficient is the heart and soul of Gringo.
Oyelowo is one of the finest actors working today, so seeing him play someone so spineless and unaware makes Harold’s awakening all the more satisfying. When he finally figures out that every part of his life has been a lie for so long, his doesn’t so much snap as snap out of his rut. It’s a magnificent tectonic shift, but it’s still Harold at the core. He doesn’t stop being nice and good to people who are kind; he’s just more aware of the backstabbers that surround him and he’s able to defend himself in an attempt to, if not come out on top, at least come out alive by the end (not an easy task). Gringo gets a lot of mileage out of its energy, its ability to use cruelty as a motivational tool rather than just as a way of belittling others, and its copious amounts of creative violence. It may not be your cup of tea, but if it sounds like it might be, you’re in for a wicked ride.