Gringo is truly a MacGuffin movie for 2018. Audiences have been watching MacGuffins in movies from Rosebud in Citizen Kane to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Everyone has seen and forgotten about a MacGuffin, even if they don’t know what one is. A MacGuffin is an object, a place, a person—anything really—that exists only as a plot device. In Citizen Kane, the entire movie hinges on the search to understand Charles Foster Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” In Pulp Fiction, the movie is driven by the desire to deliver or take possession of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase. It doesn’t actually matter why Kane said “Rosebud” as he died, or what the briefcase really contains, and the audience doesn’t care either. It matters that it drives the plot forward. In Gringo, the MacGuffin is a marijuana pill. Truly a MacGuffin of the modern era.
Gringo weaves together the stories of many people through their attachments to a newly formulated marijuana pill. Parallel to this object as an axis point for the movie is the main character, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo). Harold is a middle manager for a large pharmaceutical company that has been developing this pill at a facility in Mexico. There have been discrepancies in the inventory of the pills because the company has been selling the product off the books to a Mexican drug cartel leader. In preparation for a merger that must go off without a hitch, Harold’s two bosses, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron), take Harold along with them down to Mexico. While there, hijinks ensue. Harold learns that his wife is cheating on him and fakes a kidnapping to ransom himself back to his two uncaring bosses. Real kidnappings occur, along with a tangential plot about a would-be American drug mule, a romantic entanglement, cartel manhunts, and a hitman with good intentions.
If all of this sounds complicated, messy, or all over the place, that’s because it is. Gringo is the cinematic embodiment of a person in a money blowing machine. It tries to grab on to everything, but it can’t focus on an individual object long enough to secure it. What this means for the movie, unfortunately, is that it’s sort of a wreck.
This is disappointing for a few reasons: watching the trailer, Gringo seems to be a funny (if slightly wacky) action comedy. Think a cross between The Hangover and Elysium (this comparison makes a lot more sense because Sharlto Copley is in this movie). But, because the movie tries to tie together all of these disparate stories, everything feels a little out of place and quite rushed. Amanda Seyfried is featured fairly prominently in the trailer, but her character is simply dragged through the movie by her boyfriend, only crossing paths with Harold occasionally.
Gringo wastes other actors too. Thandie Newton (Westworld) exists to cheat on Harold, but isn’t really utilized at all. Joel Edgerton plays a quintessential jerk and does a good job with the part, but he feels very one-dimensional.
There are things that Gringo does right, however. Oyelowo does turns in a very funny and enjoyable performance as Harold. His comedic timing is top-notch and he really shines as the star of the film. Theron’s character is also more than one-note. She has motivations and actions that feel more realistic than many of her counterparts. Copley is very fun to watch, as always. He isn’t a main character of Gringo, but his appearances are refreshing—he is genuine, with real motivations and quite a few funny moments. The interactions and scenes between Oyelowo and Copley are probably some of the best in the movie. At one point, Oyelowo is on his knees praying to God that he doesn’t die, and he and Copley proceed to have a humorously theological conversation about some of the contradictions in the New Testament.
The movie is funny, too. There are a lot of laughs sprinkled throughout the film, especially as Harold plays the straight man against the exaggerated performances of the others. The movie is enjoyable, or at least can be enjoyed. It only requires the audience to sit back and let the zaniness and lack of connection just wash over them. Gringo needs a lot to be forgiven in order to be the movie it wants to be. For now, though, there are better action movies, there are better comedies, and there are better action comedies in theaters right now.
Featured Image by Amazon Studios