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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Gringo

Sometimes even messes can be fun. 

And I'm sure that's not the first time I said that.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

When Harold Soyinka, a Nigerian immigrant to America, learns that he's about to be summarily fired from the job he worked tirelessly at and that his wife is about to leave him for another man, he decides to fake his own kidnapping in Mexico to fleece his duplicitous boss out his employee insurance. As is ever the case, though, a simple plan gets very complex very quickly and the usually upright and uptight Harold soon finds himself way in over his head.

What we thought

Gringo taps into a long tradition of crime caper comedies that is mostly about a normal schlub getting tied up in impossibly convoluted plots with shady, though often colourful, mobsters, hitmen, police, drug-dealers and eccentric locals, all coming to head in a way that brings all the plot threads together, sometimes in a jangled mess and sometimes very neatly. It's a genre that probably reached its peak with Coen Brothers' sublime the Big Lebowski and, though Gringo is nowhere near that level, and suffers from many of the drawbacks of the genre at its worst, it's still solidly fun.

I mean, it is a total unholy mess with literally more characters (Amanda Seyfried is great and all but why's she in this again?) than it knows what to do with, a plot that is laughably overly convoluted and some serious pacing problems but it just about gets away with it anyway. Director Nash Edgerton (brother of Joel, who stars as Harold's smarmy boss) treads the line carefully between grungy and stylish and the script by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone is not without wit but it's the a-list cast that really sells it.

These sorts of films generally live and die on the quality of their characters and their actors far more than on the effectiveness of their plotting – I loved the Big Lebowski long before I actually understood what happened in it – and this is certainly no exception. On paper, actually, we don't really have the most amazing cast of characters. From a man-eating woman who would do anything to get to the top of the ladder to smartass Mexican motel owners who take advantage of their gringo customers, this is nothing we haven't seen before and aren't already more than a little tired of.

And yet, give that man-eating role to Charlize Theron, who has always had a strong and quite underrated comedic side, and you land up with something much more enjoyable as she takes every cliché and the book and amps each one up to eleven, resulting in something far fresher and more memorable than it has any right to be. Even the bit parts of the Mexican motel owners are given some juice by the unknown-to-me Mexican actors who play their roles with real relish.

And that's true, really, of the entire cast – no matter how small or inconsequential their roles. Sharlto Copley who has, in the past, failed miserably to live up to his breakout role in District 9 but he's a lot of fun here as what can only be described as a cross between a surfer dude, a hitman and a guru. Even Joel Edgerton who is cast in arguably the most thankless role in the film, makes his character fun to hate, rather than just hateable.

The film, though, very clearly belongs to David Oyelowo. Oyelowo has always been an excellent actor but he has appeared, almost exclusively in not just serious roles but often very earnest roles. Gringo is worth seeing just to watch David Oyelowo finally get to have some fun for once. We already knew that he can be a tremendously likable screen presence but who knew he was this funny? David Oyelowo screaming hysterically is something I never realized I wanted to much in my life until I saw this film. And that is only a strange thing to say if you haven't seen the film.

So, yes, on a technical level, it's not hard to understand why so many critics have really torn into Gringo as it is something of a shambolic mess but it's hard not to be taken in by it – and most especially by its lead character and the guy who brings him to such endearing life.




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