It’s a good thing Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron are such likable actors to watch on screen, because the characters they play in “Gringo” are downright despicable. That’s the point in this nasty piece of work, which interrupts its darkly comic, south-of-the-border satire — rendered in the outrageous, ultra-colorful style of such Elmore Leonard adaptations as “Get Shorty” and “Jackie Brown” — long enough to ask the provocative question whether Mexico might do better building a wall that keeps Americans out.
As directed by brother Nash Edgerton (helming his second feature, after 2008’s “The Square”), Joel plays Richard Rusk, the sleazy co-founder of a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company called Promethium, first seen zipping up his pants following a mid-afternoon tryst with insatiable colleague Elaine (Theron, clearly relishing the part’s vampy potential). Richard and Elaine are running a scheme that involves mass-producing a chill pill called Cannabax at a facility in Mexico, thereby positioning themselves to rule the market the instant medicinal marijuana is legalized in various States.
Frankly, it sounds like the kind of thing plenty of marijuantrepreneurs were doing in anticipation of California’s recent pot policy a couple years ago, but here, it’s treated as a dastardly plan the likes of which America’s Drug Enforcement Agency has every intention of taking down, “Sicario”-style. (When “Gringo” gets violent, it issues no warnings, dispatching characters with gnarly car crashes and blunt, bloody headshots. That’s maybe not so surprising, given director Nash Edgerton’s stunt-coordinator background, although it makes for a somewhat incongruous combination of wickedly comedic caricature and shockingly realistic action.)
Anyway, to manage the Mexico-based facility, Richard has tapped a poor sap named Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), who foolishly believes that he and his boss are buddies — whereas Joel Edgerton makes clear that Richard is looking out only for himself, long before it’s revealed, relatively early on, that he’s sleeping with Harold’s wife (Thandie Newton). With the intention of tying up loose ends before selling the company (a move that would likely cost Harold his job), Richard and Elaine decide to accompany the feckless middle manager on his next trip to Mexico, where he promptly disappears, apparently the victim of a $5 million kidnapping scheme.
It would spoil too many of the film’s many surprises to elaborate further on the plot, other than to point out that neither Richard nor Elaine has any intention of paying the ransom, and since they let the insurance policy lapse, couldn’t do so even if they wanted to — which leads Richard to enlist his ex-mercenary brother Mitch (a wild-eyed, bushy-bearded Sharlto Copley, who looks and acts like they wanted Matthew McConaughey — or at least a Matthew McConaughey type — for the role).
There are also a few other characters orbiting Harold’s predicament, most notably a young couple who work in a guitar shop (Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried, exuding zero chemistry) and the enigmatic rocker chick who offers them a chance to earn a quick $20,000 by muling a bottle of Cannabax back to the States (the latter part has attracted considerable attention, being one of Paris Jackson’s first acting gigs, and though she has just one scene, Michael Jackson’s daughter brings the sex appeal of a young Cameron Diaz). Though Seyfried’s subplot introduces perhaps the only decent human being in the entire ensemble — which is to say, someone who acts out of kindness and concern, rather than base self-interest — it adds little to this otherwise scathing portrayal of American corporate greed and ruthless Mexican criminality that comprises the rest of “Gringo.”
As scripted by Anthony Tambakis (a co-writer on Joel Edgerton-starring “Warrior,” who’s been booking blockbuster work left and right of late) and Matthew Stone (whose last produced screenplay was 2008’s “Soul Men”), “Gringo” doesn’t show much confidence in the human race, and yet, such cynicism supplies a measure of unpredictability. When virtually every character is an unprincipled and/or conniving piece of work, audiences tend not to mind when they get kicked around and/or killed without a moment’s notice — and “Gringo” is the kind of movie that invites you to laugh when a character gets broadsided by a speeding car mid-monologue.
In any case, Tambakis and Stone keep you guessing, while Nash Edgerton executes the script’s many twists in such a way that they don’t grow tiresome — which can be a real risk, when a film insists on pulling the rug out from under you every time you think you’ve regained your balance. The trouble is, they haven’t given audiences anyone to care about. The closest thing the movie has to a protagonist is Oyelowo’s Harold, the description of whom as “a black gringo in Mexico” seems to predate the film’s catchy but somewhat ill-fitting title.
Trying to blend in south of the border, Harold sticks out like a sore thumb, and is such a pathetic character — a cuckold, a fool, and an egregious racial stereotype to boot (between his thick Nigerian accent and his clownish tendency to over-exaggerate pain and fear) — that it’s more fun to focus on Richard and Elaine, who are less ambiguous about what they want. As the movie’s resident entitled-white-alpha-male jerk, Joel Edgerton builds up a character we can’t wait to see brought down, while Theron elevates withering insults into an art form.
Theron hasn’t played someone this ruthlessly seductive since her 1996 debut “2 Days in the Valley,” and in more ways than one, “Gringo” actually feels as if it might have been conceived that long ago (Stone co-wrote “Destiny Turns on the Radio,” best know for starring Quentin Tarantino, back in the day, and it was probably his idea to have the ruthless local drug lord debate which of the Beatles’ albums is the all-time best). There’s an old-school, B-movie snap to much of the proceedings, which Nash Edgerton modernizes without imposing too flashy a style upon the material. It’s pulp, plain and simple, delivering on the chance to watch depraved characters navigate unseemly situations.