'Gringo': Film Review

An overstuffed misadventure that should be funnier than it is.

Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton throw David Oyelowo to the wolves in Nash Edgerton's biz-crime comedy.

An earnest businessman learns that pharma bros can't be trusted in Nash Edgerton's Gringo, a vaguely Elmore Leonard-ish crime comedy that takes place mostly in Mexico. Or perhaps that should read "in Mexico," as the cliche-friendly fictional land seen here contains not a single citizen who can be trusted, from hotel clerks up to the requisite tyrannical drug lord. Throw in a businesswoman who invites sexual harassment as a way of getting what she wants, and you have a movie that certainly meant to be edgy, not offensive. It's often not quite either: a sometimes amusing, sometimes draggy and overstuffed affair that always relies on its talent-rich cast to carry the day.

David Oyelowo plays Harold, a Nigerian immigrant who has become a midlevel exec at a pharmaceutical company run by college friend (make that "friend") Richard (Joel Edgerton). Richard and co-worker/lover Elaine (Charlize Theron) are planning a merger with another big drugmaker, which will put Harold out of a job. But they keep him in the dark, taking him with them to Mexico to facilitate a meeting with — well, now that you mention it, there's probably no reason for them to bring Harold along, except that the screenplay needs a kidnapping plot.

That's because Richard and Elaine, whose company developed a medicinal-marijuana pill called Cannabax, have been selling buckets of the stuff to the aforementioned drug lord, an off-the-books racket that Harold knows nothing about. Why someone who presumably has an unlimited supply of organic weed would want to peddle their pills is never explained. But our kingpin Villegas (Carlos Corona), also known as the Black Panther (sorry, King T'Challa!), is deeply unhappy when the Americans try to stop their illegal arrangement in preparation for the scrutiny that accompanies big mergers. He wants the formula for their pot pill, and is under the mistaken impression that Harold is the man who can give it to him.

Trouble is headed Harold's way, but before it gets there, he finds out about his bosses' plans to wreck his career. Harold flees their luxury hotel and stages his own kidnapping, hoping the company will fork over a ransom he can keep. Then the actual kidnappers come.

Further complications arise when Harold learns that his wife (Thandie Newton) is leaving him — she's sleeping with Richard, which will eventually make Elaine quite upset. And down the hall from Harold in the dive he's holed up in, two youngsters from America (Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway) are on a vacation that, for the boy, is secretly a drug-running mission involving the very pill that Harold's company manufactures. Screenwriters Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis pile on the dramatis personae and the inconvenient happenstance here much as Stone did in 2002's Big Trouble, and that film's "shouldn't I be laughing more?" factor applies here as well.

Pushed to the extremes of credibility, most of the characters would be one-dimensional throwaways if not for the actors behind them. Oyelowo keeps Harold's desperate pleas for his life from looking like a racial caricature; Seyfried makes her character Sunny encouraging but not idiotically optimistic. Of the two moustache-twirling villains, Theron is considerably more fun to watch than Edgerton, though the script makes it hard to turn Elaine into an actual person instead of a male exec's boardroom wet dream. After she realizes how Richard is betraying her, Elaine has a couple of scenes that make one wonder if a movie seen solely through her eyes might be much more compelling.

But the spirited performances are dampened by Edgerton's direction and the cutting of three credited editors. The picture feels much longer than its 110 minutes, and isn't helped by Eduard Grau's cinematography, which is either unusually drab or was very badly served by projection at Lincoln Square Cinema's preview screening in Manhattan.

The movie's action gets a boost, credibly or not, when Richard calls in his brother (Sharlto Copley), a former mercenary who thinks he can retrieve Harold without costing the firm a bundle. This reformed hitman doesn't really belong in the picture. But sequences built around him occasionally offer a surprise laugh, and are therefore welcome.

Production companies: Denver and Delilah, Blue-Tongue Films
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Harry Treadaway, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley
Director: Nash Edgerton
Screenwriters: Anthony Tambakis, Matthew Stone
Producers: A.J. Dix, Nash Edgerton, Beth Kono, Anthony Tambakis, Charlize Theron, Rebecca Yeldham
Executive producers: Trish Hofmann, Matthew Stone
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editors: Luke Doolan, David Rennie, Tatiana S. Riegel
Composer: Christophe Beck
Casting director: Carmen Cuba

Rated R, 110 minutes