Gringo movie review: Mexican bland-off

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Gringo red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Woefully undeveloped characters, a thin yet convoluted plot, and a lack of humor in the black comedy. This is what it looks like when a hastily scribbled first draft goes straight into production.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

So this is what it looks like when everyone just goes, “You know what? This first draft of the script is great! Let’s just run with it.” This is almost always a bad idea, but especially so in this case, because the Gringo that we got from screenwriters Anthony Tambakis (Jane Got a Gun) and Matthew Stone (Soul Men, Man of the House) feels like what might have happened when they sketched out a rough outline of their “brilliant” idea — “What if Quentin Tarantino made Horrible Bosses 3?!” — before even sobering up, and then those scratchings went directly into production.

Behind-the-scenes peek at the negotiations to bring David Oyelowo onboard for Gringo.
Behind-the-scenes peek at the negotiations to bring David Oyelowo onboard for Gringo.

The horrible bosses are Richard (Joel Edgerton: Red Sparrow, Bright) and Elaine (Charlize Theron: Atomic Blonde, The Fate of the Furious), and they run some sort of pharmaceutical company that doesn’t appear to have an actual product to sell. Not legally, not yet, that is: they do have pot in a pill, and they’re producing it in a factory in Mexico and selling some to a drug cartel, because they are not only greedy but have also seemingly never seen a movie or even a news report about the cartels. (I don’t have a fancy MBA or anything, but I don’t think any of this works as a business plan.) Their employee Harold (David Oyelowo: A United Kingdom, Captive) — one of only three employees in the whole company, though it’s apparently huge; who can tell? — is a complete patsy not only at work but at home, too, with wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton: Half of a Yellow Sun, For Colored Girls). We’re supposed to sympathize with Harold and get angry for him on his behalf because everyone is so mean to him, but he really is so stupid it’s difficult to see how he remembers to breathe. He’s known Richard for years, we’re meant to believe, but requires a third party to point out what an asshole Richard is, just generally but also specifically to Harold.

Does Gringo even need its protagonist? (This is one of the things that might be caught on that first reread of that first draft.)

Anyway, they all go on a work trip to the Mexico factory together, because Richard and Elaine have cartel stuff to deal with and Harold doesn’t know anything about this side of the company, and actually it’s never even clear why they need a patsy at all, or what Harold thinks he is supposed to be accomplishing on this trip. Why doesn’t he just stay home? These are the sort of things a screenwriter or two would usually realize on that first reread of that first draft. Like, do we even need our protagonist? And if the answer is No, you might not have a story. Which in this case would have been a good thing.

So now they’re in Mexico, lawless land of cartels and rich foreign businessfolk getting kidnapped — I think this movie might be a bit racist, too — and I want to say that Gringo then becomes a tonally offputting mix of sickening violence and comedy, except there’s no real comedy. There’s just sickening violence and some bits where, in the fourth draft of the script, would have been some awesome satire and black humor, most likely. Instead we get the stupid but greedy Mexican brothers (Diego Cataño and Rodrigo Corea) who get caught up in a let’s-kidnap-an-American plot, but though they’re bungling, they’re not funny, not even in a “isn’t it hilarious how absolutely everyone here is stupid and greedy?” kind of way. We get a whole slew of misunderstandings and misinterpretations and missed connections among all of people mentioned thus far as well as mercenary turned humanitarian aid worker turned kinda back to mercenary Mitch (Sharlto Copley: Free Fire, Chappie), and the other gringos visiting from America, Miles (Harry Treadaway: Honeymoon, The Lone Ranger) and his girlfriend, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried: The Last Word, Love the Coopers) — he’s gotten roped into being a drug mule by Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael), because the plot wasn’t absurdly overcomplicated enough and who doesn’t love some stunt casting in a completely unnecessary role? And also because there weren’t already more then enough woefully undeveloped characters whose motivations we are never made privy to.

“Yes, dude, gringoes can be black. Don’t be racist.”
“Yes, dude, gringoes can be black. Don’t be racist.”

This is one of those “I know a guy” movies (someone actually says that: “I know a guy” who can solve all the problems we made for ourselves, etc) wherein it is presumed that any old random crap and any old random characters can be roped in, never mind if it means the plot makes no sense and the characters behave in contradictory ways. And for a smarter movie, “I know a guy” can work! But a lot of control and cleverness is required to pull off a story like this one, and not only is it missing from the script, director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother) doesn’t know how to find those things, either.

If there’s anything surprising about Gringo, it is the bizarre storytelling clashes that pop up as it flails about. The movie is all over the place, in tone and plot and character, but yet it feels perfunctory where it could have (and should have) felt wild and unhinged. Gringo is both too long and too short, as if it accidentally hit a weird anti–sweet spot that we didn’t even know existed when too many characters and too many plot threads crash into one another and nothing has enough time to gel and so its thinness means it overstays whatever welcome it might have had. And despite the best efforts of the genial Oyelowo, Harold — who is, recall, the one character we’re supposed to be cheering on — does things that seem way too extreme for the man we’re supposed to think he is, and yet that also end up in a place that is so clichéd I cannot believe the movie thought it was a good idea.

That probably describes Gringo perfectly, in fact: it seemed like a good idea at first…

Apple News
Read this review and other select content from Flick Filosopheron the News app from Apple.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments