Business executive Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is just having the worst business trip. He learns just before he leaves that he's tens of thousands of dollars in debt due to his wife's spending habits. His company's upcoming merger means his job is getting cut, and he's learned that rather than helping him, Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), his boss and supposed friend, along with Elaine (Charlize Theron), his other boss, is stabbing him in the back for no obvious reason. Then his wife tells him she's leaving him over a video chat. It's enough to make anyone snap, and Harold does exactly that. But he comes up with an ingenious plan: he'll fake his own kidnapping to claime the company kidnapping insurance
However, unbeknownst to Harold, the drug cartel Richard and Elaine are screwing over is also plotting to kidnap Harold. Also, the managers at the flea motel he's staying in get wind of this and try to kidnap him themselves. Meanwhile, Elaine begins to suspect Richard isn't just sleeping with her, but has a second mistress. Also! Richard gets his ex-mercenary now-Peace Corpsman brother (Sharlto Copley) to rescue Harold and possibly kill him instead, depending on the insurance payout. But meanwhile! There's this American tourist named Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) who doesn't realize her scummy boyfriend isn't just touristing in Mexico, but has a drug deal going down...
If you're getting the impression Gringo has way too many plots, you're dead on. While the preponderance of plots appears to be an attempt at a complex farce, the plots don't converge in any funny or even particularly interesting way; they're just a bunch of redundant threads. The escalating series of overlapping kidnappings should result in at least a few chuckles, but it never actually hits that point, because everything is disorganized and meandering.
Sunny's plot is a particularly stark example; the film spends several scenes setting her and her boyfriend up, and her boyfriend's deal, and all this. None of this has any particular bearing on the actual story, since her boyfriend's drug deal doesn't appear to have anything to do with anyone else. Her importance is strictly in the scene where she insists her boyfriend help her rescue Harold from the side of the road. (which Copley mistakes for a kidnapping, a detail that probably should pay off but doesn't because Harold's actually kidnapped from them almost immediately) The conversation between Sunny and Harold is the heart of the movie, and is actually a quite nice scene; he's frustrated that, despite having everything on the surface, he doesn't feel he's actually achieved the American dream. She suggests that his material desires don't actually matter, and that the world isn't bad so much as there are some people in the world who are bad. Gringo wants to explore how American capitalism has mutated into a world where you can't win except by cheating; here, briefly, it works. However, after this scene, Sunny disappears, only to briefly show up in a couple of short late scenes. Seyfried is as appealing as ever, but the film spends far too many scenes on Sunny's story, which doesn't pay off in itself or have anything to do with Harold's outside of the one scene; it should have been cut down just to her encounter with Harold, or else she should have somehow been involved in the second half of the story. (I wonder if there was an earlier draft where she became a love interest for Harold; that certain seems to be where it's going before it forgets she exists)
This messiness might be easy to overlook if the movie was funny anyway, but it's largely not. There are a few laughs here and there, but not only does the script struggle to get the plots to pay off in funny ways, it's low on clever dialogue. Worse, what funny lines there are get trampled by the tone; director Nash Edgerton (Joel's brother) plays it all in thriller mode, meaning lines that should be funny simply come off as contrived and threatening. But it doesn't work as a thriller, either - the convoluted storyline and farcical situations keep it from any real credibility here. There's a decent car chase toward the end, but it's too little, too late on that count.
Where it does excel is in its cast. Theron and Joel Edgerton have a blast as the worst kind of sociopathic business execs, and Copley is highly engaging. But it's the chameleonic Oyelowo who really elevates the entire enterprise. He gives Harold all manner of depth and complexity, while also showing a real knack for comic timing. Nearly every laugh the film does have comes from Oyelowo, and what little heart it manages, as well.
Gringo may not entirely work, but it's not quite boring. The multiple storylines may ultimately frustrate, but they do at least ensure that something is always happening, and the film features so many good performances that it constantly threatens to actually turn good. Alas, it never quite does.
Director: Nash Edgerton
Producers: Rebecca Yeldham, Nash Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A. J. Dix, Anthony Tambakis
Writers: Anthony Tambakis, Matthew Stone
Cast: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Box Office:$7 million