* * 1/2
Gringo, Nash Edgerton’s second feature film as director, desperately wants to be an Elmore Leonard adaptation, but it’s not. It’s from an original screenplay by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone that is full of Elmore-isms: witty and relatively lovable criminals, nefarious schemes, heaps of ethnic diversity, rapid-fire dialogue, guns but not too much actual violence, exotic locations, and an essentially comic tone. But Leonard’s books – and the best adaptations of them, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and the TV series Justified – always have, amongst the wacky ensemble of rogues and ruffians, a central figure who commands respect, through their ingenuity, humanity and moral code (even if they’re a criminal themselves). Leonard’s lead characters don’t get lost in the shuffle, they command the ship.
Gringo’s lead character, by contrast, is passive, reactive, and an embarrassing stain on skillful actor David Oyelowo’s body of work. Why he agreed to take this role is a mystery, but how he plays it is almost an affront. His character Harold may be an executive working for a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Chicago, but he’s Nigerian, and, as he gets more and more scared by more and more Mexican thugs while doing shady pharma biz in Mexico City, his reactions become ever broader, his eyes bugging, his voice hitting falsetto, his teeth practically chattering. By the time he’s on his knees praying to God for his life, he’s truly become a caricature and a stereotype. It’s an uncomfortably bad performance, fueled by a terribly conceived character on the page and as directed.
Three of the ensemble come off well: Charlize Theron and Edgerton’s brother Joel make an entertainingly sleazy double-act as the crooked pharma head honchos, and infamous scene-stealer Sharlto Copley arrives late in the piece to rescue every scene he’s in. But there are heaps more poorly written characters lurking in the often very confusing story. What in the world are Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried up to? Their threadbare characters and incoherent storyline could have been cleanly snipped from the film to its great benefit. As it is, Gringo has seemingly good intentions, and shows good taste in its inspirations, but keeps missing its own beat, scene after scene. It’s a happy-go-lucky, shaggy, odd, silly, and ultimately infuriating mess.