Back in 2007, Australian writer-director-actor Nash Edgerton made a terrific short film called “Spider” that won a lot of festival awards (you can watch it on Vimeo) and followed that up a year later with the deft, critically-praised neo-noir “The Square” (not the recent Swedish Oscar nominee). His future seemed promising. “Gringo,” Edgerton’s first feature in 10 years, doesn’t follow through on that promise so much as make a few more of them. Which, honestly, is good enough for an undemanding night at the movies.
Written by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, it’s a twisty dark comedy in the action-suspense vein, piled high with talented actors playing cretinous fools and featuring enough betrayals, mistaken identities, and narrative switchbacks to keep you pleasurably befuddled. Actor David Oyelowo gets a rare comic lead as the film’s title character, a sweet-natured and naive corporate patsy named Harold Soyinka. The director’s kid brother, Joel Edgerton, has become a major movie star (“The Great Gatsby,” “Red Sparrow”) over the past decade, and he’s on hand as Harold’s old college friend and boss Richard Rusk, the conniving CEO of a pharmaceutical company.
“Gringo” sets up its narrative dominoes carefully before tipping the first one over. On the eve of a visit to the company’s pharmaceutical plant in Mexico, Harold catches wind that Rusk may be selling the company and dumping his old friend. There’s also some bad news involving Harold’s wife (Thandie Newton), and suddenly Richard and his co-president Elaine Markinson — a gleamingly amoral shark played with gusto by Charlize Theron — are coming along on the Mexico trip.
There’s also a British drug mule named Miles (Harry Treadway), his clueless sort-of girlfriend Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), and a Mexican drug lord (Carlos Corona) with a fondness for late-era Beatles albums and a nickname — the Black Panther — that couldn’t be more poorly timed. And two hapless brothers (Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea) who are either kidnapping Harold or just pretending to. Oh, and Rusk’s brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a former CIA assassin who’s had a change of heart and is working for a Haitian NGO but might be persuaded to pick up his old line of work.
So the stage is set for a good, nasty, slam-bang farce, and “Gringo” makes it about two-thirds of the way there. The cast has a great good time — Oyelowo, playing a stooge who slowly gets wise over the course of the film, has a chance to loosen up after playing Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” and Copley (“District 9,” “Chappie”) is a most engaging wild card, since you don’t know whether his character will follow his murderous or helpful impulses and neither does he.
The female roles are underwritten and a bit mean-spirited, though; Theron’s character never quite makes sense, though the actress tries. (She does get a few juicy scenes with an old corporate lech played by Alan Ruck, who will never not be Cameron from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to me.) The film’s Mexican backdrop and the characters who inhabit it are too clichéd to take seriously and too toothless to be offensive.
More problematically, Edgerton keeps the film’s pace too slack for his farce to build to the necessary fine pitch of madness. At a certain point, a movie like “Gringo” should pick viewers up by the scruff of their necks and rocket them through the escalating absurdities. Instead, Edgerton slows down and lets the film catch its breath. He wants “Gringo” to be logical, and that’ll never do.
You can see where he’s aiming, though. “Gringo” plays a little like a Coen brothers movie without the sense of cosmic jest, or a Steven Soderbergh confection like last year’s “Logan Lucky,” but without Soderbergh’s generosity toward his characters. If Edgerton keeps aiming — if he’s allowed to make more than one feature film every 10 years — maybe he’ll hit his target more squarely and we can finally start talking about a “Nash Edgerton movie.”
Directed by Nash Edgerton. Written by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone. Starring David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Sharlto Copley, Amanda Seyfried. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 110 minutes. R (language throughout, violence and sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.