The All-Star Pulp Fiction Gonzo Crime Farce (TM) – it’s practically a genre. Get a bunch of famous people together (not like disaster movie or Ocean’s Eleven-level famous, but enough to reach I’ve-seen-these-actors-before mark), get them mixed up in some very complicated caper or heist or scam, run them around in circles until something funny, or frightening, or in the best-case scenario, funny-then-frightening, happens. Foreign locales and cheesy soundtrack cuts are a plus. So’s gory, unexpected violence. There have been good, bad and ugly versions of this movie over the past few decades, and Gringo seems perpetually stuck between the last two categories. It can’t decide whether it wants to be magnificently toxic or merely mediocre. Mileage may vary on where the movie eventually lands, but either way, this is a “romp” that’s keen on going nowhere … and sloooowly.
Harold (David Oyelowo) is a Nigerian immigrant working in a Chicago pharmaceutical company. His boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton, possibly the busiest actor in showbiz right now), is the sort of douchebag-bro who “has a vanity license plate and does push-ups in his office.” This gent is also not adverse to “doing” his fellow corporate apex predator, Elaine (Charlize Theron), in said office as well, which is exactly what gets interrupted one afternoon by a frantic phone call. Long flashback-story short, the two executives have brokered a deal involving marijuana in pill form, currently being manufactured in Mexico until complete legalization becomes the law of the land. All of three of them had gone south of the border to finalize some details. Harold stayed behind. Now he’s been kidnapped. And Richard and Elaine think that, instead of paying a ransom, their coworker may be better off dead.
There’s more, much more, because of course there is. Like a Mexican cartel drug lord, who’s a Beatles superfan and has a tendency to shoot anyone who thinks Sgt Pepper is the band’s best album. (Spoiler alert: He’s more of a Let It Be guy.) And Harold’s wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton), who’s having an affair behind his back. And a sleazy British musician (Harry Treadaway), who’s goaded by a comely young woman – hello there, Paris Jackson! – into picking up some contraband in Mexico as well, with his guitar-shop-owning girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) in tow. Also there’s two inept brothers who own a hotel and Richard’s own sibling, an ex-mercenary (Sharlto Copley) who’s agreed to go extract Harold for a price. And some plot twists. And double crosses. And bullets. Etc.
All of this should be a cakewalk for director Nash Edgerton, Joel’s brother and the braintrust behind the loose Australian filmmaking collective Blue Tongue. If you’ve seen the amazing gangster flick Animal Kingdom or that creepy Joseph Gordon-Levitt character study Hesher or Nash’s own 2009 neo-noir The Square, you’ve seen a Blue Tongue movie – and even if the group’s arthouse 2.0 take on Ozploitation (or vice versa) somehow didn’t leave you slack-jawed, you could appreciate the sheer piss-and-vinegar excitement behind its projects. Only the first part of that dual descriptive shows up here, and Gringo‘s overall sourness only makes its overfamiliarity that much more contemptible. We know we don’t have to necessarily care about the caricatures you’re foisting on us in the name of “coolness” – but can’t you at least make this fun instead of a slog? There’s a D.O.A.-ness to this whole affair, except when the filmmaker, a former stuntman, gets to roll a car not once but twice, or stage a headshot or two. Then it’s back to running his actors through this poorly conceived mousetrap of a movie. He is better than this.
So is Oyelowo – naturally! – and Joel, and Newton, and certainly Theron, who’s the only person that seems determined to make the best of a bad situation. You forget that she first made a name for herself in a movie just like this, 2 Days in the Valley (1996), and she gives a performance here that’s the definition of doubling down. Whether she’s slinking through office meetings like a sexed-up shark or barking Mamet-worthy obscenities or giving herself an aggressive, self-loathing pep talk (the movie’s highpoint), Theron invests a sense of livewire commitment in her corporate hotshot that the film isn’t worthy of. It’s almost like she’s singlehandedly trying to electrify her fellow cast mates back to life – a sort of “come on guys, let’s all put on a show here” 1,000-wattage jolt. There’s a momentary spike whenever she flashes a fuck-you glare or hidden-agenda come-hither stare. Then Gringo goes back to flatlining. It’s a crime movie that doesn’t pay.