Perhaps Netflix and Amazon are producing content to match their algorithms and don’t have the time to filter out for quality.
Some filmmakers populate their fictional narratives with unsavory characters in an attempt to create more realism, with the assumption that having a cast that’s too artificially likable is in some way dishonest. This usually happens in small indie films about dipshit hipsters who are all garbage people, but when a genre movie does the same, it’s for a different purpose.
Action comedies, like Nash Edgerton’s Gringo purports to be, tend to utilize archly unlikable characters for comedic effect, ramping up the absurdity in their surliness for jokes until these cartoonish assholes eventually get their dramatic comeuppance. Gringo, a 110-minute film that somehow feels three hours long, missed this memo. The entire cast is full of characters who are not just difficult to like but nearly impossible to watch. What has the potential to be a tongue-in-cheek romp sending up the byzantine machinations of the crime thriller genre ends up being a laborious, rarely amusing slog where the only person worth rooting for is so comically pathetic it borders on depressing.
It’s a wonder an actor of David Oyelowo’s caliber signed on to star in this film. He plays Harold, a Nigerian immigrant working for a pharmaceutical company that produces a miracle medical marijuana pill. His purview is the Mexican plant where the drug is manufactured. It makes sense why Joel Edgerton would want to play Richard Rusk, Harold’s dickish boss/fake best friend (his brother is the film’s director), and it’s not surprising to see Charlize Theron as the scheming ice queen Elaine Markinson (Theron relishes playing unlikable women). But what’s in it for Oyelowo? His character makes A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik look like Jordan Belfort.
Seriously, it’s difficult to remember the last time a protagonist in a movie was so hard to rally behind. In pro wrestling, it’s common for a babyface hero to be something an underdog. To garner sympathy from the audience, the babyface encounters misfortune as a result of his adherence to the rules, while the heel triumphs by subverting them and taking advantage of the hero’s decency. Film functions much the same way, but if the hero is hapless to a fault, so oblivious and pitiful that he’s embarrassing to behold, he’s less an actual character and more a right wing Redditor’s platonic ideal of a cuck.
If the story of the film was about an average guy who plays by the rules and discovers that the world around him is poisoned by the rulebreakers and thus must learn to color outside the lines to get what he wants, that would be compelling. Instead, we watch an overlong first act establishing Harold’s being a laughable pawn, then an even longer second act where he becomes a MacGuffin between the company that is screwing him over, the drug cartel that works with that company and the various other supporting characters all caught in the crossfire.
Trying to outline the plot in any appreciable way is a frustrating endeavor because, for a script written by two grown adults each with a handful of screen credits to their names, this is the most poorly structured and paced mainstream film to come down the pike in quite some time. Whole scenes exist to flesh out how shitty the people in Harold’s life are rather than to push the plot forward or, God forbid, provide any dimensions to Harold himself that might make us feel something other than pity for him. There’s precious few actual laughs and even less legitimate action.
It’s just a shaggy-dog story with no satisfying end in sight, one that culminates in a simulacrum of catharsis without any of the film’s many bastards getting the payback the film spends so much time making the audience gag for. It’s like watching a Guy Ritchie movie with zero style, or a Coen brothers film with nothing to say. Just an endless procession of skin crawling assholery with no rhyme or reason. This is a movie in which Sharlto Copley, a character actor who makes the best of the worst films, has nothing interesting to do. Sharlto Copley has never turned in a boring performance, no matter how shitty the movie surrounding him is. Yet, here we are.
This would be less offensive if it wasn’t a story about a black man being so ruthlessly emasculated and used by those pretending to be closest to him in corporate America. It isn’t so much that this is an unrealistic story. In fact, it’s all too common. But who the fuck in 2018 wants to watch a movie where half the jokes are at the hero’s expense, often centered entirely around his Nigerian accent? Gringo is such a mean-spirited film, where it’s clear on some level that the writers think Harold deserves all the abuse for being such a goody two shoes.
That no one thought it was weird for the film’s central metaphor, a hypothetical anecdote Rusk uses to explain the way of the world to Harold, to be about monkeys and bananas says it all. How this film got financed and produced is a mystery, but perhaps Netflix and Amazon are producing content to match their algorithms and don’t have the time to filter out for quality.