Facing down a mercenary’s gun, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) does what any good-hearted but overwhelmed middle-manager would do: he drops to his knees and begs God for help. Shocked by this display, the mercenary (Shalto Copely) lowers his weapon and tries to talk some sense into his target. When asked if he actually believes in God, Harold answers, with equal incredulity, “What kind of man does not believe in God?”
Both men are shocked by the other’s ludicrous answer, and its hard to tell where screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone intend the joke to land. The scene ends with a car ramming into the mercenary, thus rescuing Harold in the most improbable manner and implying that his prayers have been answered. But most of director Nash Edgerton’s crime comedy Gringo treats him like the ultimate schmuck, foolishly keeping his faith in fairness and hard work as everyone takes advantage of him.
This “everyone” includes a fairly wide array of unsavory characters, and I don’t mean “unsavory” in the playful sense. These aren’t characters we love to hate, but bad people, badly portrayed, as the quality cast has no clear vision from the director. Nash’s brother Joel plays Harold’s best friend and boss Richard as a stereotypical business bro, switching between alpha-male competitiveness and nonsense corporate philosophies. Charlize Theron gets to add a bit of femme fatale edge to her role as Richard’s partner Elaine, but she feels just rudderless as Edgerton, unsure if her character’s barbs are sharply funny or just stupidly mean.
Tambakis and Stone fill their story with so many awful people, that opportunism and exploitation seem like the norm, and Harold the dope who takes too long to realize that. In and of itself, a jaundiced worldview isn’t a problem, and the story has pretensions to be an Elmore Leonard-style caper, with lots of double-crosses and memorable crooks.
But its too lazily realized to be effective. The plot is fairly straightforward — Richard sets up Harold as the patsy go-between with the Mexican factory he’s using to manufacture a not-quite-legal cannibas pill, thus inflating the value of he and Elaine’s pharmaceutical firm — and any other layers, such as Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried as a low-level drug mule and his girlfriend or Diego Cataño and Rodrigo Corea as opportunist criminals, add more business and no texture.
The most glaring example of this problem comes in the form of a cartel boss who takes an interest in the marijuana factory. In two scenes, the boss begins talking about his love of The Beatles before killing people, but the juxtaposition has no effect. It’s not funny, as there’s no joke there. It’s not menacing, as we’ve seen violent gangsters a million times before and we don’t care about the victims in these scenes. It doesn’t really even serve the plot, as the victims (and the cartel itself, really) are tangental to Hector’s story. It’s just a half-hearted attempt that dies from lack of conviction.
Conversely, Oyelowo puts in complex performance, lending humanity to what amounts to a dopey fall guy. The extra moments he takes to acknowledge people Richard and Elaine dismiss and the way he enthusiasticly trusts people who will betray him keep the audience pulling for Harold, even when we should be shaking our heads with disgust. He’s a real person, understandably frustrated to be lost among cartoonish bad guys.
If Gringo had a stronger vision or tone, Harold would be a modern tragic figure, the one good and principled man against a legion of cheats. But instead his actions are just random occurrences in a meaningless world without a higher power.