Gringo is a film that is undeserving of any praise that it may receive. Even the current 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes seems a bit generous for this classic instance of an absolutely garbage script attracting talent way above the material. Admittedly only a passing interest in the assembled cast was what got me in the theater, and had I not gone in blind I would have realized what kind of mess I was in for.
The cast is led by David Oyelowo playing a meek businessman named Harold, an employee at a pharmaceutical company that has developed what is referred to as a “Weed Pill.” He is friends with one of the company’s presidents, Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), who brings him and another CEO, Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron), to Mexico to make sure their new drug production is up and running. However, Harold discovers that Rusk and Markinson plan to sell the company in a merger that will make them rich just as he learns that his wife is leaving him. Feeling betrayed and at wits’ end, he decides to fake his kidnapping so he can collect the ransom from his bosses.
Despite seeming like an average crime-comedy at first, Gringo’s story escalates in complication once the characters get to Mexico. We are continually introduced to new characters over the course of the entire film, and each one needs to be kept track of in order to understand the complex web of who’s on whose side. Some people, like two motel owners that help Harold fake his kidnapping, are secret cartel members, while a mercenary hired to locate Harold (Sharlto Copley) is actually Richard’s brother. On top of that, there’s a superfluous third drug dealing element in the form of Miles (Harry Treadway), who brings his unaware girlfriend Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) to Mexico to smuggle some of the Weed Pills across the border. After an enthusiastic opening third, the film unravels a very frustrating and confusing ordeal where keeping track of every single character and their immediate relevance to the “story” is the only way you can know what’s going on. They are all given the illusion of importance but do not actually add anything to what we are told the plot is, which is Harold being caught in between a feuding drug cartel and the pharmaceutical company. The lack of a clear end-goal for the audience to understand where the stakes lie is a huge factor that contributes to this confusion, as characters drop out of the story very willy-nilly and you don’t know when they’ll come back, diminishing the crucial element of character investment.
Quite simply, Gringo is the perfect storm of bad writing and bad direction. The structure of the script combined with the pacing of the film makes the story feel more like some kind of television drama or soap opera rather than any kind of movie you would need to see in the theater. Scenes are very dialogue-driven and are paced very slowly with absolutely no sense of what is supposed to be accomplished in the film at large. Numerous side-plots may end up paying off for the characters involved in said plot lines, but they don’t ultimately affect what is supposed to be the main plot. If you take away the television analogy, then you are left with what feels like two or three different movies happening at the time that don’t intertwine in any interesting or meaningful away. I don’t give a crap about the love triangle between Elaine, Richard, and his lover when I’m still trying to keep track of what’s going on to Harold in Mexico. Harold gets picked up by Miles and Sunny when he escapes from the cartel at one point, but their interactions feel like a crossover that does not advance any kind of plot or character development, which the film is completely devoid of. After this meet-up, you won’t see those characters for another 15 minutes or so until the film decides to cut back to them; I guess because it’s their episode this week.
On top of all of this, all of the characters are unpleasant. Since the film is so slowly paced, a great deal of time is given to all of these character-driven scenes, but they are all bad people you don’t want to root for or see succeed except for Harold and Sunny, who are just boring and have no agency whatsoever. This makes what is supposed to be a comedy not funny (not that there are even attempts at real jokes to begin with) and what makes a crime thriller boring. This film is such a poorly put together “thing” that I can’t help but speculate as to what made Gringo happen. Did the script need more rewrites? Should there have been a director who had more experience outside of almost exclusively directing shorts? Did Amazon Studios have too much faith in the project, or instead turned what was a potential new original series into a sloppily-constructed film? I guess yes and no to all of this. At nearly two hours this is a rough rough sit, and no good performances from good actors can save that.
Gringo is a very poor showing of a film. The pacing is much too slow and the writing is beyond all over the place, with an overabundance of characters attempting to search for depth and purpose in a film where there is less than none.