Movie Review: Gringo

David Oyelowo and Charlize Theron are overqualified for a passable caper comedy.


If there were a special place for middling cultural products—the so-so pop song, the not-entirely-bad book—that would be the proper destination for a movie like Gringo. There's nothing really dislikable about the picture, but that's partly because there's not really much to it. You'd expect any movie featuring Charlize Theron and David Oyelowo to have at least a few redeeming moments, and this one does—but it remains irredeemably so-so.

Oyelowo (Selma, Interstellar) isn't an actor ordinarily associated with comedy, but he should really do more of it—he's slyly funny here, playing a guileless Chicago pharma exec named Harold Soyinka, whose world is about to blow up in his face. Harold is a Nigerian immigrant with an all-American work ethic, a loving wife (Thandie Newton), and a childlike faith in his boss, Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton). Unfortunately, Richard is a complete scumbucket, and thus a perfect match for his business partner, Elaine Markinson (Theron), an ice-bitch sex terrorist (she fondly reminisces about having once "pulled a train" with the entire lacrosse team in a Dairy Queen parking lot).

Richard and Elaine's company, Cannabix, has developed a technology that enables the putting of pot into pill form. This is going to be huge as soon America legalizes marijuana, and the co-CEOs are already in talks with a larger company about a merger—an epic payday for both of them (although probably not for anybody else).

There's a problem, though, and it could queer the big deal. The Mexican factory where the game-changing pot product is already being churned out has become entangled with a cartel drug lord named Villegas (Carlos Corono), a disarmingly jolly but nevertheless very bad man. (Visitors to his narco-lair are compelled to answer a question: Is Sgt. Pepper the Beatles' best album? Those who answer correctly get to keep all of their favorite body parts.) (The correct answer for Villegas is yes; in actuality, of course, it's no.)

It's clear from the outset—to us, at least—that there's no place for Harold in Richard and Elaine's long-range plans. Harold comes to realize this, too. He formulates a dangerous scheme, and before long we make the acquaintance of one Mitch Rusk (Sharlto Copley, less annoying than usual). Mitch is Richard's brother, a former mercenary who's found redemption as a Haitian relief worker—although he's still available for wet work when his sleazy sibling decides it's time to terminate Harold in every possible sense of the word.

At this point Aussie director Nash Edgerton (Joel's brother) would seem to have all the ingredients for a tight, quirky little crime comedy. But the script, by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, keeps loading more stuff aboard, and soon the story begins to list. There are two comic-relief brothers taking up more space than they should, and a young American couple (Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway) whose main purpose seems to be getting underfoot (until the end, when Seyfried's character is called upon to give the story a shot of sweetness and light).

There are many worse ways you could spend two hours than watching this movie. Oyelowo plays a born victim with great charm, Edgerton has a lot of fun with a character whose clueless vulgarity is a secret only to himself, and Theron owns every scene she's in. (The one in which she talks herself down from an unthinkable crying jag is yet another tribute to her technical virtuosity.) Gringo isn't a bad movie. If only it were just a little bit better.