Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) wants to believe he has it all: a loving wife (Thandie Newton), a successful job, and just around the corner the promise of a multi-million-dollar windfall if his boss Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) is to be believed. But somehow, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not as forthcoming as it appears, and when he asks Richard about his bonus should the company's deal with medical marijuana go through, he is fobbed off with excuses and worse, something that sounds like a threat. His other boss, Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) is even more blunt, but a trip down Mexico way for all three is about to radically alter their dynamic...
Even that far into the twenty-first century, the long shadow of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction loomed large in American thriller cinema, and not merely American, either. That trademark mixture of snappy dialogue and twisty-turny plot developments was well to the fore in many of this sort of crime drama, and Gringo was no exception: it even had the celebrity cast from big hitters such as Theron to internet stars in an extended cameo (Paris Jackson). If you had seen an indie thriller from about 1995 onwards, you would have some idea of what to expect, which was a convoluted plot and aims for the audience's funny bone, especially if they were the kind of viewers who laughed at violence.
What allowed this to rise above the tiresome, "not this again" material of a lot of those others were some nicely observed performances that did more than simply allow the salty dialogue to carry their readings. Oyelowo was particularly effective as the Nigerian nice guy unused to an America that will happily fuck you over to get ahead, not something he understands initially since he expects everyone to be as ethical as he is, but over the course of the Mexican trip his eyes are about to be opened to the extent that he tries a spot of subterfuge himself. Naturally, not all of this plan goes to, er, plan, but you could say the same about everyone else's scheming here, where the amusement lay.
Not to overpraise Gringo, it was still all over the place, and not simply geographically either, its aims for Ernest Hemingway comparisons so loose as to be practically invisible, and its lapses into action sequences more perfunctory than necessary, as if director Nash Edgerton was throwing them in because he felt he had to rather than them adding anything crucial. But what was cheering was how Harold in his essential innocence managed to win out over some very nasty people, almost as if he was a beacon of decency amongst a corrupt society that kicks the weak to the kerb in its endeavours to be top of the shitpile, and for that reason we wish to see him succeed. Even if his own plan, to get the fortune owed to him by pretending to be kidnapped, was performed with less than impressive style.
The thing was, we liked Harold and were able to understand his desperation at being stuck in a rat trap while in the rat race (he is basically bankrupt when we meet him), thanks to little bits where, for example he is introduced to us rapping along to Will Smith in his car journey to work; you don't have to be a Will Smith fan to find this endearing, since Harold is blatantly no Fresh Prince. Theron was also having fun as a hard as nails workplace shark, using sex to bend stupid men around her... well, not her little finger, anyway. Amanda Seyfried was stuck in a nice girl role but needed to prove it was not only our put-upon hero who had morals, and Sharlto Copley made a good, if hairy, reading as Richard's mercenary brother who is conflicted as to whether he should kill Harold or collaborate with him. Carlos Corona, too, as the cartel boss overcame hackneyed pop culture references to make something menacing out of a stock part - it was one of those movies you found yourself liking in spite of its faults and stop-start narrative because everyone committed to it and its conclusion to escape that rat race was the best course of action. Music by Christophe Beck.
[Sony's DVD has a few featurettes to add a little extra to the package.]