Gringo review: David Oyelowo leads the cast of Nash Edgerton’s dark comedy-cum-thriller.
Gringo review by Abi Silverthorne.
The concept of the ‘Gringo’—as it is in Edgerton’s dark comedy-cum-thriller—is a multi-faceted thing.
Its literal meaning in the Hispanic lexicon is an English-speaking, typically American foreigner on Spanish, or Latin, turf: enter Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a mild-mannered man of middle-management prospects who ignites the film’s energetic opening from off-screen, as the phone call detailing his supposed kidnapping arrives.
As the story goes, Harold is the typical hapless Gringo, consistently bewildered to hysterical degrees and unwittingly embroiled in the drug-trade underbelly of his bosses’ business—a side to the cushty Chicago office job he certainly isn’t aware of when he accompanies his colleagues to Mexico for a ‘conference’, but one he has all too excruciatingly experienced by the end.
Ultimately though, with his genial attitude to the culture and his Nigerian roots (Inspired, as Oyelowo purported, by his own father) Harold is not nearly the obnoxious interloper that the term implies. Instead, his character speaks to the sense of the outsider that ‘Gringo’ signifies, from either end of the spectrum. At once baffled by America’s culture of corruption and by the consequent chaos that overwhelms him in Mexico, Harold is too soft; in high-speed DEA chases, he is the only man buckling his seatbelt. He is someone looking for his place, somewhere where he is not (as opposed to being the intruder) intruded upon in immoral ways from all corners.
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It’s a fascinating character arc with a knockout performance from Oyelowo, so much so that it was at once gratifying and disappointing when he revealed he fought his way into the role originally envisioned by producers for a white man; disappointing that he needed to, but gratifying for the film that would have suffered a debilitating loss without him. The emotive prowess he has showcased in Selma, Small Island and the rest is not underused here, coming out in shining moments of dramatic vulnerability. All the more show-stopping is the grand arrival of the actor as a perfect comedic leading man, one that perhaps deserved a slightly funnier film than this is. He is naturally the most entertaining part of the entire thing, but also, miraculously, the emotional centre point as well—holding every ridiculous plot point credibly together until it’s time for him to let go and flip out. Oyelowo has described performers like Will Smith as his heroes, and with the space for poignancy he has found in his comedy, he is clearly in-keeping with some of Smith’s greatest work.
On the other side of the equation are Harold’s bosses. They’re pitch-perfect nastiness in the form of Charlize Theron’s Elaine and Joel Edgerton’s Richard. Once their involvement with a drug lab in order to reap the benefits of ‘pharmaceutical’ wealth for their ailing company draws the wrong kind of attention, they’re happy to have their Harold shaped scapegoat shoulder the consequences. It may be worth questioning the Edgerton brothers’ relationship if this is the role they envisioned for Joel in sibling Nash’s directorial feature, such is its sheer ability to make one want to punch Joel in the face.
Almost too unpleasant to laugh at in some cases, these two put the dark in dark comedy, and perhaps their sexually-manic, sociopathic, money-hungry, and racially smug (“I’m telling you in American” Richard enunciates at some point during his brief hustle in Mexico) caricatures signify that this film has a little something to say about Western culture and Trump’s America at large. They are timely antagonists, indeed.
The film is heavier on the thriller side than some might expect, with depictions of crime and adultery played surprisingly straight. This can make it feel uneven, while the comedy that is there is mostly standard, seen-it-before, set pieces (and news flash all writers—fat jokes became cheap a long time ago, let them go) but all this is luckily elevated, not just by Oyelowo but by the strength of the story, which is thankfully more creative than some of the jokes.
Matthew Stone’s capering tale crosses borders and weaves a cast of seemingly unconnected characters—featuring a dandy drug mule (Harry Treadaway) and his innocent girlfriend Sunny (Seyfried back in charismatic business) and Richard’s nice guy hitman brother (Sharlto Copley)—together in some pretty witty ways. When the various threads of their disparate storylines begin to weave together around Harold’s journey in a mad cross-stitch, all the set up feels worth it. Even innocuous comments by Richard and displays of kindness by Harold come back into play at the other end of the narrative, which speaks very well to the film’s overall message of karma, while the closing montage, wherein all loose ends are tied, is brilliantly satisfying.
There are not as many laughs as there could be, but at least Harold, as endearing and likable a creation that he is, gets the last one.
In the end, Gringo is a patchy comedy but a riveting story and features a turn by David Oyelowo that should remind us all why he deserves to be regarded as an even bigger star than he is. This, along with a strong supporting cast, make this a bumpy ride still well worth taking. Make like Harold and fasten your seatbelt.
Gringo review by Abi Silverthorne, February 2018.
Gringo is released in UK cinemas Friday 9th March 2018.