Saturday, March 10, 2018

Gringo / ** (R)

Amazon Studios
Harold Soyinka: David Oyelowo
Richard Rusk: Joel Edgerton
Elaine Markinson: Charlize Theron
Sunny: Amanda Seyfried
Mitch Rusk: Sharlto Copley
Bonnie Soyinka: Thandie Newton
Miles: Harry Treadaway
Angel Valverde: Yul Vazquez
Robert Vega: Hector Kostifakis
Jerry: Alan Ruck

Amazon Studios and STX Entertainment present a film directed by Nash Edgerton. Written by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone. Running time: 110 min. Rated R (for language throughout, violence and sexual content).

The Edgerton’s appear to be a family of many talents. Hailing from Australia, Joel Edgerton is the better known of the brothers in the United States. He stars in his brother’s latest feature Gringo. Most would recognize him from leading roles in films like Warrior, The Great Gatsby, Exodus: Gods & Kings, Blank Mass, Loving and The Gift—which he also wrote and directed. His older brother Nash Edgerton directs Gringo. Gringo is Nash’s second feature film after the 2008 Australian thriller The Square, which took the top spot as my favorite film of that year. Gringo has some of the earmarks of that film but lacks its sharp tone and strong protagonist.

That protagonist is Harold Soyinka, a sad sack middle management worker at a pharmaceutical company, who is in financial straits due to his wife’s interior design business. Harold’s best friend, Richard Rusk, is a CEO of the company who insists on punishing Harold for being late to work because it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the staff for him to play favorites. In truth, Rusk is neither a good friend nor a good person. He’s having an affair with his interior decorator. You connect those dots. Rusk’s partner is the ruthless Elaine Markinson, with whom Rusk is also having an affair and the two are in cahoots to use Soyinka’s Mexico operation of producing a yet to be legal medical marijuana pill to merge with a larger pharmaceutical company to their great personal profit and a large redundancy action against their own employees, including Soyinka’s position. Rusk assures Soyinka his job will not be eliminated, however.

In preparation for the merger, Rusk and Markinson accompany Soyinka on a trip to the Mexican plant and, unbeknownst to Soyinka, cut relations with a Mexican drug dealer they used to create capitol to get the project off the ground. Is it any surprise that when Rusk returns to Chicago he receives a call from Soyinka claiming that he’s been kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel? Instead of paying the ransom demand, Rusk hires his former-mercenary-turned-humanitarian brother to extract Soyinka. In a side plot, a music shop employee drags his girlfriend, the too-sweet-to-be-in-this-plot Sunny, to Mexico to mule some of the pills back to a drug dealer in Chicago. That last bit illustrates well one of the film’s primary problems—too many characters and subplots to hold the audience’s interest in any one of them. There are several other subplots I won’t bother to go into here because it would take my entire column space to explain them all.

The characters suffer deeply from how thinly the screenplay’s attention is stretched. I’m not sure cutting down on the plotlines would’ve really helped that much, however. There is no sense that Edgerton rushes through any development. He spends a good time in Chicago establishing the story and the characters, but there’s not much to make us care for them. Other than Soyinka and Sunny, none of the characters embody any sympathetic traits. There is an attempt to make the audience empathize with the Markinson character when she discovers that Rusk is cheating on her with Soyinka’s wife, but it is a brief and small attempt to give depth where it seems greatly in conflict with all that we’ve seen from her before.

This is not to place any blame on the cast, who all do their best to sell their individual places in this intricate plot. David Oyelowo might just be too strong a presence for such a nobody loser as Soyinka. Perhaps a lesser-known character actor would’ve fit the role better. Oyelowo does his best not to elevate Soyinka to a level that we can believe he’s capable of pulling anything off the way he plans. Other than Charlize Theron’s brief emotional scene as Markinson, none of the other characters are afforded any attempt to make them complete people. As Rusk, Joel Edgerton is a jerk to just about everybody for no apparent reason. His brother, as played by South African actor Sharlto Copley, is a man conflicted between his old ways as a mercenary and the new leaf he’s turned over as a humanitarian relief worker. This is used to minor comedic effect but not much else. Only one of the Mexican characters is given any treatment beyond a gross stereotype as criminals, and that one poor man is only acted upon by the cruelty of the other characters.

--> It’s easy to see what appealed about this script to director Edgerton. Gringo shares many of the aspects of The Square—a large cast of characters, a criminal element, and many subplots that all converge in unique and unexpected ways. Those are also the most positive aspects of the movie. The Square, on the other hand, is a very serious story from start to finish. Gringo also suffers from an inconsistent tone. Screenwriters Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis attempt to inject a good deal of comedy into their high stakes plotting. Most of the jokes fall flat, however. Gringo had the potential to provide a unique movie experience as a relief from typical Hollywood fare. Another swipe at the script might’ve tightened up the plot and sharpened the characters enough to make it work. I would’ve enjoyed seeing that movie.

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