★ ★ ☆
Everyone loves an underdog. From Rocky defying the odds to go from zero to hero to Billy Elliot chasing after his dream of being a dancer, tales of people beating the odds have been a Hollywood staple for years. “Gringo,” a new film starring Charlize Theron and David Oyelowo, features a character with the steepest climb to success that we’ll see this year.
Oyelowo, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for playing Martin Luther King in “Selma,” stars as the mild-mannered Harold Soyinka, a middle manager at a start up pharmaceutical company. Personally and professionally his life is a dumpster fire. In debt and on the verge of bankruptcy, his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) is having an affair with his boss Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), who plans on selling the company and firing Harold.
As his life swirls out of control Harold accompanies Richard and business partner Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) on a trip to their manufacturing facility in Mexico. Here things really start to unravel when it’s revealed that Richard and Elaine made a deal with a drug cartel to sell their product off the books for a quick infusion of cash. Now, trying to go completely legit, the devious pair wants out of that deal. Trouble is, the cartel isn’t ready to end the deal and poor old Harold is in the middle. “The world is upside down,” Harold moans. “It doesn’t play to pay by the rules.”
There is loads more like a kidnapping plot, a wide-eyed American (Amanda Seyfried), double-dealings, a mercenary with a heart-of-gold (Sharlto Copley) sent to find Harold and a deadly Beatles fan, but there will be no spoilers here.
It’s stuffed-to-the-gills with intrigue, which makes for a chaotic final third, but for all the huggermuggery, the big surprise here is Oyelowo’s light touch. Best known for his dramatic turns in movies like “A Most Violent Year” and “A United Kingdom,” here he finds a pleasing balance between Harold’s desperation and exasperation, mining the character’s situation for maximum humour. Most importantly for this underdog story, you want him to succeed.
Copley’s mercenary is fun but the same can’t be said for the rest of the generic characters populating the story. Theron is one note as a trash-talking executive who doesn’t hesitate to tell a man she just fired to “stop crying and go down to unemployment.” Edgerton, whose brother Nash directed the film, is all alpha-male bluster and not much else.
Aside from showcasing Oyelowo’s comedic side “Gringo” feels old fashioned, like it has been sitting around on a shelf somewhere, hidden from view since the 1990s. It was the heyday of indie crime dramas like “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag,” a time when writers looked to Tarantino for inspiration only to fall short. “Gringo” wears those fingerprints all over it. It’s a good but derivative effort that feels more like a Netflix film than a big screen experience.
2 ½ STARS