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Complicated yet likable ‘Gringo’ runs out of steam

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Charlize Theron and David Oyelowo star in “Gringo.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)

The knotty action-comedy “Gringo” is the latest from Blue-Tongue Films, a collective of Australian filmmakers that has, thus far, produced fine work.

Actor-writer Joel Edgerton, his brother, stuntman-director Nash Edgerton, director David Michod and others have turned out such treasures as “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated “Animal Kingdom” (now a TV series), the bizarre, funny “Hesher,” the futuristic “The Rover,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “The Gift.”

They share a kind of grounded grittiness, and, with the exception of the oddball “Hesher,” very little comedy.

Then came Michod’s bright, satirical “War Machine,” which landed with a thud.

Perhaps the team had better stick to grittiness; their new “Gringo,” though likable and fun, lacks a strong rhythm. It eventually becomes tiring as its humor flags. Yet, though it runs a longish 110 minutes, for the majority of the time, it’s a smart, jam-packed movie with plenty to enjoy.

Nigerian-born, Chicago-dwelling Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is something of a milquetoast; he’s sent out in the cold to walk his wife’s dog in the wee hours before work.

He’s a mild-mannered clerk at a pharmaceutical company, run by his flashy, cocky friend Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton).

Richard is also sleeping with his co-executive Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron), although “sleeping” is a relative term; a quickie in the office restroom will do.

The labyrinthian plot begins when the company develops a marijuana pill, and Richard and Elaine unexpectedly join Harold on a routine trip to Mexico to visit a client. They plan to clean up some dirty business there, before Harold finds out.

This leads to a confrontation with a dangerous Beatles-loving Mexican drug lord, the “Black Panther” (Carlos Corona), who decides that Harold is actually “el hefe.” Then, when Harold learns that his wife is having an affair, he decides to run away and pretend to be kidnapped.

In a rundown motel, he bumps into two other gringos, the sweet, aptly-named Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway) who has agreed to smuggle the aforementioned pills back to the U.S.

Finally, Richard dispatches his ex-mercenary brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to find Harold. It all comes down to Harold running for his life amid an onslaught of bullets.

It’s exhausting describing the plot, and it’s exhausting watching it. The longer Harold goes on with people trying to kidnap or kill him, the more we just hope for a little break.

There are breaks, nice ones, such as when Harold and Sunny discuss the connection (or disconnect) between goodness and money, or when Harold and Mitch talk about religion, but they’re interrupted with a nerve-rattling “bang,” undoing whatever relaxation might have occurred.

The movie’s humor, quite strong in its first third, eventually wanes to nothing by the final third. It is, admittedly, difficult to keep jokes coming in a plot this dense, as proven by last year’s “Logan Lucky,” but it’s still a letdown.

“Gringo” is certainly not a terrible film, and if it succeeds, it’s because the characters, even when they’re awful or weak or make mistakes, are still allowed moments to be human. They sometimes don’t quite know what they’re doing, and they can admit it.

The movie also sometimes doesn’t know what it’s doing, and it’s also forgiven.

Three stars
Starring David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried
Written by Anthony Tambakis, Matthew Stone
Directed by Nash Edgerton
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes

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