Director: Nash Edgerton
Cast: David Oyelowo, Joel Edgarton, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. And I say this – contrary to the nostalgic optimism of this phrase – in the worst possible way. Because this “black comedy” is as crude, slang-ish and tone-deaf as its title. At a muddled running length of 110 minutes, it even dares to be supremely uninteresting.
What’s worse is that Gringo is overpopulated with talented “outsiders” – immigrant A-listers, if you may – who have collectively decided to utilize this project as their annual opportunity to check out of cinema and check into the ‘movies’. Diversity, I suspect, is merely a commercial device: the (noble) lead is Nigerian, and the two South Africans in the cast exhibit a semblance of personality. Even more despairing is the fact that this fatally exoticized vacation parading as genre fast food – a crime routinely associated with ignorant American storytellers – is made by a bunch of resourceful non-Americans. Directed by (prolific) Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s brother, Nash Edgerton, Gringo is a messy manifestation of the sad truth that nepotism isn’t only limited to Indian cinema. #OscarsSoColoured Hollywood can be just as self-destructive.
Gringo is neither funny enough nor dark enough, and serves as yet another nail into Charlize Theron’s spiraling midlife-crisis coffin. I’m not sure the film, of which she is one of the producers, is even aware of how casually racist it is. This isn’t only down to its misguidedly humorous treatment of the oppressed African protagonist; it ironically ends up reinforcing every racial stereotype possible in an attempt to demystify the bizarre mechanics of Trump’s Mexico. This illness is amplified because it isn’t spoofy like a deliberately offensive Adam Sandler bomb; the very presence of someone as distinctly fantastic as David Oyelowo makes it a chaotic African drama stuck within the blades of a harebrained first- world star-spangled spanner.
Directed by (prolific) Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s brother, Nash Edgerton, Gringo is a messy manifestation of the sad truth that nepotism isn’t only limited to Indian cinema
Oyelowo plays a tired Nigerian man, Harold – “Harry is, like, totally a far more famous name,” declares an intellectually diminished but kind-natured Chicago girl later – who is struggling to embody the concept of the great American dream. He is chest-high in financial debt, works for a corrupt pharmaceutical company, headed by corrupt and tasteless bosses (Edgerton and Theron), and is married to a morally corrupt woman (Oh Thandie Newton, stop dumping your on-screen husbands) who is having an affair.
Naturally, the script contrives to land poor, straight-to- a-fault Harold in a situation where he has nothing left to lose – in the middle of cartel-ruled Mexico, thanks to one of his bosses’ shady drug deals. Naturally, he decides to orchestrate his own kidnapping to teach everyone a lesson, and obviously three separate narratives (an Escobar-ish cartel boss who speaks in Beatles’ phrases, a British drug mule with a ditzy blonde girlfriend, an ex-mercenary hired to hunt down Harold) are designed to converge in the most incoherent shootout possible. On one hand, Gringo wants to be a quirky, offbeat and artistically aware Coen brothers dramedy, but on the other, its form is fundamentally so derivative and politically detached that I’d be surprised if Mexico doesn’t build its own wall in response to this movie.
Perhaps the most disappointing part is Oyelowo’s clumsy presence. We get that the Selma actor wants to mix it up a little and maybe lighten the look of his communally powerful, heritage-proud CV. But really, what is he thinking? There surely are better ways to be self-derogatory about a deeply rooted culture. In the era of Black Panther – no, I refuse to believe that the cartel boss’ nickname (Black Panther) is remotely self-aware – Oyelowo’s is a strangely irresponsible performance. I’m not saying he should be strong, serious and make a statement with everything he does, but Gringo is so far in the wrong lane that it’s hard to imagine a more self-defeating “hero” in recent times. Everyone wants to capture, kill or enslave an honest-to- God Harold at various junctures; this metaphor is considerably less effective than the makers might imagine. “This guy went from Nigeria to Chicago to Mexico; I’m surprised he’s alive!” remarks one of the film’s discourteous Americans wryly, trying to convince us of the makers’ painfully satirical anti-USA perspective.
At one point, depressed and drunk beyond redemption, encouraged by a scheming Mexican bartender, Harold begins to blurt out a bunch of chess moves from a game he had once purposely lost to his boss. Here, it’s difficult not to wonder how perhaps Oyelowo might actually be drinking himself silly while bemoaning his decision to go from the undying spirit of Ugandan chess coach Robert Katende in Mira Nair’s sports biopic, Queen of Katwe, to being a frightened “Gringo” on the run from North America’s excesses. Back to square one, indeed.