The things an actor has to do to make a living, file no. 712,384: Gringo. British international character player David Oyelowo, who once upon a time broke new ground on the London stage by portraying Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company, has been making his way through the hills and valleys of a Hollywood career since moving over. His most prominent role was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and he also contributed his sincere presence to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (as a poignant Civil War soldier) and Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, as King Seretse Khama of Botswana. He even gamely tried to impersonate blues legend Muddy “Mississippi” Waters, in the Chess Records story Who Do You Love.
But nothing could have quite prepared Oyelowo for the part of Harold Soyinka in Nash Edgerton’s Gringo. Mild-mannered Chicago suburbanite Harold is the office flunky in a company run by frat-boy business bro Richard (Joel Edgerton, the director’s brother) and his fellow shark Elaine (Charlize Theron), a pair of acid-tongued, back-stabbing corporate predators. Richard and Elaine have been selling certain pharmaceuticals from their Mexican plant to a drug cartel honcho named the Black Panther (Carlos Corona). And now the sharks want to back out of the deal. No one backs out of a deal with Pantera Negra, so on a trip below the border, Harold’s bosses arrange for him to get caught holding the bag.
Despite the best efforts of Australian stuntman-turned-director Nash Edgerton (The Square), his actor brother Joel (Black Mass, Animal Kingdom), the dependably statuesque and threateningly verbose Theron — with the additional presence of a hit man (Sharlto Copley), Harold’s worried wife (Thandie Newton, in a thankless part), a bumbling drug dealer (Harry Treadaway), his hippie girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), and carloads of goons — Gringo is a nasty piece of sub-Breaking Bad junk.
Writers Anthony Tambakis (Warrior) and Matthew Stone (Soul Men) pile on the clichés like cheap souvenirs. There are one or two bits of quirky Tarantino-esque dialogue — Pantera Negra loves the Beatles and will kill anyone who doesn’t, etc. — but Richard and Elaine’s “heartless” antics are clumsy cartoons. Even talented actors look stupid when the writing is faulty.
Oyelowo’s slapstick shenanigans, however, tickle us. Maybe it’s the way Harold panics at the slightest provocation, or his drunken buffoonery lurching down the tourist trail, or the scene in which it’s established, tellingly, that Harold is a skilled chess player — just in case. An actor who can portray a civil rights martyr should theoretically also be able to handle a klutzy, bewildered fall guy if the part calls for it. Even in a flat-footed action comedy.
Oyelowo will recover from Gringo. The Edgerton brothers, as well, undoubtedly have better movies in them. After all, they’ve written a few. And Theron can take care of herself — the scene with Elaine giving herself a pep talk is a shining example. In the meantime, always beware of a movie that buys excessive commercial time for its trailer during the Oscars telecast. Nothing good can come of it.
Directed by Nash Edgerton. With David Oyelowo and Charlize Theron. Now playing.