Thursday, 14 June 2018

Movie Review: Gringo (2018)



The plot: Harold (David Oyelowo), a worker at pharmaceutical company Promethium, is tasked by his higher-ups Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron) to go to their factory in Mexico to deliver an experimental form of medical marijuana. However, unbeknownst to Harold, it seems that Promethium's business dealings aren't all on the up and up, as the Mexican cartels are also involved in this deal. With few options and a growing number of people after him, Harold will have to think fast if he wants to get out of Mexico alive.

Oyelowo, considering he’s basically playing a human Macguffin, does well enough at portraying the Lawful Good part of the film’s morality scale while also getting some passable comedic mileage out of his increasingly bizarre situations. Edgerton as his higher-up, while a bit on the bland side as far as morally-dubious antagonists go, still manages to wring a surprising amount of depth out of his character’s definitions, depicting him as all things white, male and arrogant to decent effect. Theron opposite him blows him completely out of the water, and it shows that this is the kind of role she would want to back a production around as a producer. Both as a comedic presence and even as a character performer in her own right, Theron makes for not only the best laughs of the entire film but also some surprising low-key dramatic moments as the vulgar veneer coating her slips ever so slightly.

Sharlto Copley as Richard’s brother, aside from being the linchpin in one of the film’s most intriguing dialogue moments where he and Oyelowo debate the morality of St. Peter and Judas, gets to exercise his skill as a character actor to bring forward a more refined version of Harold’s intent as a good person being pushed into a decidedly un-good scenario through his own character. Thandie Newton as Harold’s wife exists largely just to be part of a love web with the main characters, and she comes across rather plain as a result. Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried as two American tourists who get caught up in the larger events, quite honestly, don’t need to be here. Sure, Seyfried allows for a couple decent moments with Oyelowo, but their characters are such non-entities that I’m unconvinced that that same moment couldn’t have been fulfilled by other, more interesting personalities that actually have a solid purpose to be here in the first place. Alan 'Cameron Fry' Ruck as another pharmaceutical businessman gets some good moments next to Theron, Diego CataƱo and Rodrigo Corea as two brothers who own a Mexican motel are the closest this film gets to genuine comic relief (and even they don’t turn out so well) and Carlos Corona as the Beatles-loving cartel leader manages to get across the right amount of comedy and menace that that description would entail.

While Joel Edgerton has been making some serious power moves in Hollywood over the last several years, this is easily the most high-profile thing his brother Nash (the film’s director and co-producer) has been attached to. Aside from being quite a prolific stuntman, working on quite a few of his brother’s films as his stunt double, his only other feature-length effort to date is The Square. While that film definitely showcased both Nash’s abilities as a director and Joel’s aptitude for scripting, it was also decidedly darker and a lot more straight-faced than something pushing for dark comedy as much as this does. That level of inexperience is kind of evident in how the tone for this film seems to be all over the place. There are all of no smooth transitions, or even transitions full-stop, between the murkier crime moments and the more sneering comedic moments, meaning that we’ll jarringly go from a drug runner talking about how overrated Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is to him ordering his men to cut off a person’s toe. What’s worse is that it’s quite clear that Nash, or at the very least the writers, were far more interested in the noir side of the story than the comedy, meaning that while there are a couple decent chuckles to be had (primarily thanks to Charlize Theron), they are few and far between.

But even with that in mind, the crime aspect of the story feels quite off as well. This kind of chess-piece noir flick is rather commonplace by this point: A bunch of morally ambiguous characters taking action without knowing everything going on around them, leading to a series of unfortunate coincidences where they end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, all while the central character looks aghast at just how many people are gunning for him. It has a definite Coen Brothers-esque feel to it, particularly films like Burn After Reading and even The Big Lebowski in how a lot of the ‘criminal action’ is derived from most of the characters being completely in the dark about each other. Hell, with how it delves into certain areas of moral questioning, showing Harold to be the only nice guy in a collection of opportunistic alphas, it feels like bits of it tap into the more intriguing parts of a given Coen Brothers production. However, that feeling is somewhat shot in the foot by looking at the people attached to this as writers. First is Anthony Tambakis, who has worked with Joel Edgerton in the past on the incredibly sloppy Jane Got A Gun, and the second is Matthew Stone, a writer who has actually worked with the Coens before. Problem is that Stone gave the Coens Intolerable Cruelty, easily one of the worst films they have ever made. That feeling of Diet Coen throughout this film starts to make a bit more sense with that in mind.

But that ultimately doesn’t answer the question of why this ultimately doesn’t work, and that can be pinned down to a single point: Focus. The Edgertons may not be the most original and ground-breaking filmmakers out there, but what they lack in ingenuity, they make up for in sheer talent as they are more than capable of spinning familiar stories into something effective. Unfortunately, nothing here feels like the right things were given emphasis for that prospect to work out. For as star-studded as the cast is, a hefty fraction of the characters they’re portraying either don’t need to be here in the first place or are portrayed in a way that doesn’t make us as invested in their stakes as we should be. Whatever genuinely compelling aspects are present here, like the underlying notions of what it means to be a ‘man’ that comes out of Richard’s dialogue or the possible moral ambiguity of Elaine or even the moral ponderings around the plot at large, they are shown fleetingly while the production as a whole sticks to quantity over quality. I’d rather have just a couple of really well-rounded characters, which this film definitely has, than a wide selection of either really good or really pointless to watch shuffle around the board.

All in all, this is a bit of a letdown. The cast, as good as some of the actors are, feels like a bunch of corporate CEOs being sent to the mail room: Overqualified for the rather thankless tasks they have been given. The writing shows the same sense of wearing one’s influences on its sleeves that have come to define the work of the Edgerton brothers, but it feels like Nash and the writers were pulling all of the wrong ideas from those influences, not sticking to the areas that actually work for this story. As a comedy, it’s pretty lacklustre with only a handful of genuinely funny moments, and as a crime caper, it’s too disjointed to get across any solid points or even to make the most out of this already well-worn premise. As much as this film could potentially give the audience some things to ponder, like its look at differing moral standards or even looking at the difference between American pharmaceutical drug-dealing and Mexican cartel drug-dealing, it’s too diluted to be of any real use. Joel Edgerton may have confirmed his status as an exceptional filmmaker, whether he’s acting, writing or directing, but his dear brother still has some ways to go.

It ranks lower than The Commuter, which may have been derivative and wonky in its workings but it still managed to deliver on what it promised: The latest piece of Neesonsploitation. Gringo not only doesn’t deliver on what it sets out to do, it isn’t even that clear what that intention was to begin with. However, as underperforming as this is, I can at least say that I didn’t find myself bored by the proceedings. Let down and somewhat disappointed, but never bored. Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, as good as some parts of its creation are, was still a bit of a slog to sit through. Pure engagement is a major critical factor around here, so this just manages to inch over that film.

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