(Movie Review): GRINGO Isn’t Masterful, But It Delights All the Same
The most compelling characters in movies are always the ones embodying thankless virtues. In a medium that mythologizes villains and sociopaths, even modest heroes shimmer in the dark.
This is the appeal of Harold, played by David Oyelowo. He is a peed-upon employee working a soul-sucking job at Cannabax, a pharmaceutical company on the forefront of cannabis innovation. He is a minnow in a shark tank, but deep beneath doubt and poisonous influence, he is proud to be a minnow in a world where being a shark is the easy way out.
David Oyelowo is ideal casting, and without him, GRINGO would collapse like a tent without poles. I’m in a troubling position here: I enjoyed the film, but I admit that its successes are equaled by its stumbles. But the successes ride on the wings of our central character, who weaves in and out of trouble with the same clarity of conscience we’d find in a Frank Capra picture.
Compare him to Richard (Joel Edgerton). He is crude, careless, and ready to throw acquaintances under the bus at the next available convenience. If he extends a favor, it’s a favor of currency rather than friendship — he doesn’t do kindnesses he can’t turn into a bargaining point later. When Harold asks him if a rumored corporate merger means he’ll be out of a job, he says, “I’ve got your back.” Why should he believe him? Perhaps the same reason he stays with a wife (Thandie Newton) who seems totally indifferent to his existence: he owes it to himself to be optimistic. If he doesn’t see the best in people, who will?
Richard runs the company with Elaine, played with sharp teeth by the lovely Charlie Theron. We get the impression not all of their business is strictly legal, a suspicion cemented when they bring Harold Mexico to accompany them in checking on business across the border, which is less “business” than it is “illegal”. When Harold realizes he’s simply a pawn in their plan, he decides to create a scheme of his own, built upon faking his own kidnapping in order to weasel money out of his so-called friends.
The plotting is strange in that some threads are tight and coherent while others dangle like outstretched shirt buttons. The details of the cartel story, however superfluous, make sense to me, and the kingpin’s love of the Beatles is endearing, even as he cuts toes and kills mercilessly. But the relationships don’t convince like you hope. Charlize Theron flirtatiously manipulates a man who blocks the road to the big corporate merger. When he starts to flirt back, my stomach sank like it should, wondering how far the filmmakers will push the end result. But it doesn’t have the courage it thinks it does, and so it dissolves into nothingness.
Another example: Edgerton’s character is seen having an affair with Thandie Newton. Well, not Newton specifically, but a woman who is identical to her in shape, skin tone, and hair style— every way visible from the back of the head. Yet the movie presents both characters as if we’re not supposed to be able to connect the dots. When their affair is fully revealed, several viewers in my screening gasped with audible sincerity. Were they stoned? If so, some words from a fellow pundit: sharing is caring, and I like to be cared for.
There’s one more current that doesn’t run smoothly: Amanda Seyfried traveling to Mexico with her boyfriend to negotiate a deal with the same group distributing drugs for Cannabax. They’re presented early and consistently, and yet their story serves no real purpose beyond finding Harold in the middle of nowhere, even though we follow the boyfriend until the cartel plot fully resolves. Couldn’t they have just been random tourists who crossed paths with Harry while taking in the sights? Reducing their roles to cameos would have produced a cleaner, sharper script.
And yet Harold successfully pins the movie to solid Earth. He is a pure spirit navigating a desert of misanthropy, and watching the plot test his character makes the movie feel less like a routine than a trial. Even as he himself begins to con the conmen, it never feels like he’s being corrupted; he’s simply pushing back against the world after years of holding it in place for all the wrong people.
This is driven home by the appearance of Richard’s brother Mitch, played by Sharlto Copley. He’s a missionary-turned-hitman-turned-international-agent-of-peace, hired by Richard to deliver Harold back to the United States. At first, Harold is nothing but a mission to him. But the more time they spend together, the more they seem to understand each other. Harry sees in Mitch a pure courage he wishes he had, while Mitch develops an almost paternal admiration for Harold. Even when their relationship turns dangerously sour, we appreciate their dialog exploring each other’s morality.
GRINGO is a messy film. Multiple jokes crash rather than land, and despite the twists and turns of its multi-stranded narrative, it’s relatively unambitious. And yet with its individual moments, it fulfills comedy cinema’s core purpose: I laughed straight through to the end, and I was fully invested in the hero who served up the humor. I can’t reason my way out of the joy I felt during the story’s final moments, when in a rare triumph of decency, it appears that the better man has, in fact, won.