J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Gringo: South of the Border Farce, with a Body Count

Apparently, smoking marijuana takes too much effort for Millennials. If only they could just pop a pill and be done with it. As it just so happens, Harold Soyinka’s dodgy pharma company has developed exactly such a product in its ultra-sketch lab south of the border. A lot of tough customers would like to get their hands on a sample. As a result, this will be a very bad time to fake an abduction, but Soyinka always had bad timing. However, the drastic turn of events just might have a liberating effect on the trod-upon worker drone in Nash Edgerton’s Gringo (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Soyinka starts out as an early Walter Mitty, putting up with his exploitative boss, Richard Rusk, because he condescendingly pretends they are friends. Yet, Rusk has secretly seduced Soyinka’s grasping wife Bonnie, who is on the verge of leaving her sad sack husband. That does not sit well with Elaine Markinson, Rusk’s corporate co-president and possessive lover. Having gotten wind of an impending merger, Soyinka tries to fake his own abduction, but it will be more convenient for Rusk if his supposed pal is killed down there. That is really bad O. Henry-esque news for Soyinka, especially when he is kidnapped for real.

It is just one darned thing after another for Soyinka. Things will look up when he is ostensibly rescued by Rusk’s merc-turned-social worker brother Mitch, but he is still in more danger than he realizes. At least he rather enjoys crossing paths with Sunny, an American tourist who might be even more naïve than he is. However, her drug mule boyfriend Miles is up to his snide neck in a scheme to smuggle out some of Rusk’s pot pills.

Gringo is about a millimeter deep, but screenwriters Anthony Tambakis & Matthew Stone pack each second with a plot reversal or a violent bit of slapstick humor. Edgerton cranks the pace up to warp speed and the spritely upbeat soundtrack takes the rough edge off a lot of the cartel violence. At times, it comes perilously close to becoming a Ben Stiller parody of Sicario, but poor Soyinka’s peril is always quite real and pressing.

Indeed, Gringo showcases David Oyelowo as we have never seen him before—as a cringy doormat. Sometimes, he is just hard to take. On the other hand, it is jolly good fun to watch Charlize Theron vamp it up as the emasculating Markinson. Joel Edgerton also oozes slime as Rusk. Frankly, Sharlto Copley is almost too charismatic for the ethically ambiguous Mitch Rusk, albeit in a weird way, but Amanda Seyfried is appealingly sweet and earnest. In contrast, Harry Treadaway’s Miles is perhaps the most abrasive character in a film overflowing with duplicitous sociopaths.

Much has been made of Paris Jackson’s film debut in Gringo, but keep in mind she has maybe two minutes of screen time in what amounts to a cameo. Nevertheless, she shows some promising screen presence and on-the-beat comedic delivery. Viewers will laugh during the film and leave feeling satisfied with the pay-offs, but a year from now, probably the only thing most folks will remember would be Theron cranking up the femme fatale dials to eleven—but that is something. Recommended as a screwball diversion, Gringo opens today (3/9) in New York, at multiple theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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