‘Gringo’ Is a Dark and Humorous Crime Caper

In “Gringo,” a lot of heavy exposition is handled with a story. Two of them involve gorillas and the third a bear. Every one of them is told as a means to give Harold, the good-hearted Nigerian protagonist, some insight into why he is always a victim. It is a smart literary device that is just one of many in this cleverly written dark comedy about a good-hearted African “gringo” fighting for his life in Mexico while trying to do the right thing.

David Oyelowo plays Harold, a trusting employee of an evil American pharmaceutical company about to release Cannabax (marijuana in pill form) on the market while under secret negotiations to merge with an even larger American pharmaceutical. Harold is the definition of good. A sincere believing Christian, he is loyal to his company, his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton), his old college buddy now boss Rich (Joel Edgerton). He is even loyal to his other boss, the manipulative ice queen Elaine (Charlize Theron). But Elaine is sleeping with Rich, who is also sleeping with Bonnie and they all plan to throw Harold under the bus.

Which is why Harold finds himself in serious danger while trying to hide in the less desirable neighborhoods of Mexico City. What begins as a badly conceived attempt to find some justice for himself takes a turn for the worst as Harold has to escape a Beatles-loving Drug Lord (bad things happen to Beatles critics when this guy is around), Rich’s brother (a former professional killer now turned aids worker), the DEA and two opportunistic brothers (and unfortunate Beatle critics). The only decent human he encounters is the appropriately named Sunny played by Amanda Seyfried, an L.A. record store clerk on a trip with her (unbeknownst to her) drug mule boy friend.

With one narrow escape after another, Harold is forced to confront the reality that good people in this world can’t catch a break. It always seems like the faithful and the good go unrewarded while the evil go unpunished.

The screenplay by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone is smart and boasts a quirky cast. The plot is well enough paced that the predictable twists are quickly overshadowed by the genuine surprises.

“Gringo” is directed by Australian Nash Edgerton. His brother Joel takes on the role of the untrustworthy Rich. Joel Edgerton, most recently seen in “Red Sparrow,” appears to be on the cusp of greater stardom after years of well-crafted performances in other major studio releases. Rich is a faithless, narcissistically preppy capitalist. Edgerton gives him layers that combine petty bullying with ambitious evil plans that he is not quite smart enough to pull off. On the other hand, Carlize Theron’s Elaine is a brutally realistic and manipulative femme fatale. When she learns that the merger will leave either Elaine or Rich redundant, she secretly meets with the CEO of the purchasing company to make her case. When it becomes clear he is more interested in cheating on his wife with Elaine than discussing business, she challenges his manhood in a way that leaves him with no other option but to discuss the business at hand.

The entire movie is well-cast and well-acted. But it is the lead David Oleyowo as Harold that gives “Gringo” an edge over similar films of this genre. He is pitch perfect as the bewildered innocent, seeking answers to his questions of faith.

It was Oleyowo’s idea to make Harold a Nigerian immigrant, feeling it would bring a fresh perspective to a role that is commonly cast as white. Oleyowo’s parents are Nigerian and he himself lived there for a number of years. Although the primary purpose of “Gringo” is to make people laugh, Oleyowo felt that a black African main character could add another needed layer to our national discussion on immigration.

“Gringo” is a fast-paced adventure/comedy with an appealing main character and answers to the questions of what it means to be truly good in this world.

Gringo” opens March 9 in theaters nationwide.