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'Gringo' lacks the intelligence to make a dark comedy work

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

A mild-mannered middle-management stooge gets lost, only to find himself, south of the border, in the mostly middling action-comedy "Gringo," directed by Nash Edgerton, written by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone.

David Oyelowo tests out his comedy chops as Harold, a nice-guy Nigerian immigrant scraping by and scrapping for his slice of the American Dream, which involves an inattentive wife (Thandie Newton), a tiny dog, a mountain of debt and a couple of truly abusive, criminal individuals as bosses. Living the dream.

From left, David Oyelowo, from left, Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton star in "Gringo."  The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

Harold and his bosses, basic bro Richard (Joel Edgerton) and wolf of Wall Street wannabe Elaine (Charlize Theron) work at a nebulous pharmaceutical company that's secretly in a precarious financial position. Harold makes regular trips to check on the manufacturing in Mexico, and when Richard and Elaine come along, it results in trouble for Harold.

An under the table deal with a local drug cartel goes under and Harold becomes the No. 1 target. But suddenly, Harold doesn't want to go home anymore, and thus begins a cycle of Harold faking his own kidnapping, being kidnapped, escaping, being kidnapped again, and so on and so forth.

There's an interesting question of "worth" that circulates around this cycle of kidnapping and negotiation. Harold is dismayed that his company would rather negotiate than pay a full ransom for him, and that they've let their kidnapping insurance lapse. When Harold continually evades capture, he suddenly accrues more worth because he's scarce. It's a fascinating idea that's explored with far more depth and nuance in the Danish drama "A Hijacking."

Everything about "Gringo," from the storytelling to the comedy to the cinematography is incredibly lackluster. The film is dark and dim, like everything's covered in a layer of dust. Oyelowo is quite endearing and funny as Harold, but he's given very little to work with. The film just feels like it's missing crucial connecting tissue storywise. The drug that their company manufactures — a cannabis product called Cannabax — isn't explained until halfway through, and we don't even know what it does or why anyone wants it.

And as much as "Gringo" is missing parts of the story, there are completely superfluous elements as well. Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway show up as a pair of American tourists — he's smuggling Cannabax out of Mexico and she's his unknowing girlfriend. The only purpose for this subplot seems to be Sunny (Seyfried) befriending Harold for a short while.

"Gringo" feels both interminable and thin, and very low-stakes — how can every single scene be both unnecessary and dull?

"Gringo" bills itself as a dark comedy because it's very violent (there's almost no regard for human life, just Harold's) and because corporate piranha Elaine says a lot of shockingly horrible things — racist, sexist, ableist, fat-shaming horrible things. Her worldview is the definition of the phrase "punching down." The writers seem to think this makes her edgy or tough or worthy of admiration. If her character had any arc, it might make sense, but she doesn't.

Her abusiveness doesn't tell us anything about her character, but it does tell us everything about these writers. Dark comedy is a difficult needle to thread, and one absolutely necessary quality to do it well is intelligence. But the treatment of Elaine isn't smart at all, just sensationalist and shocking. This "Gringo" is better off staying underground forever.

1.5 stars
Cast: David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton, Yul Vazquez, Harry Treadaway
Directed by Nash Edgerton
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, violence and sexual content.