For his first studio film — and only his second feature in two decades — idiosyncratic Aussie director Nash Edgerton loads up on some of his signatures, including lots of bad guys, tons of twists, and a dark sense of humor. Unfortunately, his sensibilities are dulled by a sprawling story that never quite snaps together. Edgerton’s previous feature-length effort, the brutal and brilliant “The Square,” offered up a crime story populated almost exclusively by very bad people, an exercise in how to make even the most vicious of characters impossible to stop watching. For his “Gringo,” Edgerton adds something new: an actually likable protagonist.
Still, it’s not enough to make “Gringo” really pop, and the wacky worldview that Edgerton is so often able to infuse in his works — look no further than his brutally funny and violent short “Spider” for proof of that — never emerges within the confines of his most straightforward comedy to date.
“Gringo” opens with great promise: The perpetually put-out everyman Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) has been kidnapped by baddies while on a business trip to Mexico, and his only possible saviors are his ill-natured bosses, Richard (Joel Edgerton, Nash’s brother and frequent creative partner) and Elaine (Charlize Theron).
The movie then zings backwards two days to show how exactly Harold landed in such a precarious position, and why everything might not be exactly what it seems to be (and why this awful-sounding predicament is actually an amusing one). Harold’s kidnapping isn’t just the result of an ill-timed trip to the Mexican factory that makes the drugs that Harold’s pharmaceutical company sells (legal, mostly), but of an amusing gag that Harold hopes will change his perennially bad fortune. Complications ensue, of course, aided by the addition of actual drug kingpins, some low-stakes grifters, and the kind of sudden violence Edgerton often cleverly loops into his work.
Oyelowo, best known for his work in serious films like “Selma” and “A United Kingdom,” is a worthy and fun leading man, and while his Harold might be a bit of a loser, the film never pushes him into sadsack parody. Instead, he’s a believable and evolved twist on the trope, an underachiever pushed to crazy ends that actually rises to the challenge.
Edgerton and Theron, however, go a bit more broad with their antagonists, with Edgerton’s Richard Rusk reading as the most bro-y of pharma bros imaginable, and Theron essentially transforming her “Young Adult” character into a corporate vamp. The big choices work, though, and “Gringo” is at its most enjoyable when the pair giddily unleashes their worst instincts. If Edgerton had made a movie with just these three ping-ponging against each other, he might have actually been on to something.
Too bad then that the sprawling supporting cast is both undercooked and underused, from Melonie Diaz as Richard’s beleaguered assistant Mia, Yul Vazquez as Harold’s trusty Mexican driver Angel, Thandie Newton as Harold’s unfaithful wife Bonnie, and even a somewhat restrained (yes, it’s possible) Sharlto Copley as Richard’s very different brother. An entire subplot involving Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway could stand to be snipped, even as Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone’s script labors to make their loosely interconnected story feel essential to Harold’s.
That’s where “Gringo” loses the thread — instead of letting Oyelowo keep control over a rapidly spiraling situation, the movie piles on the additional characters and convoluted subplots. What happens to Harold in Mexico is meaty enough for a feature, and the big surprises that both the script and Oyelowo’s character unspool could easily fuel the kind of dark comedy Edgerton excels at crafting.
Instead, “Gringo” sags and slips in its middle, falling so flat that even its fast-paced and neatly tied up final 20 minutes can’t get the energy back up. It’s some of the best stuff the film has to offer, though, fast and funny, dark and weird, and as well-made as anything Edgerton has made yet. Cut the fat next time, but keep the nice guy.
“Gringo” will be in theaters on Friday, March 9.