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GRINGO: Oyelowo steps out of his comfort zone

“Gringo” features a Mexican drug lord who likes to ask people how they feel about the Beatles. (Friendly tip: Don’t insist that “Sgt. Pepper” is their best.)

Late in the film, this unlikely fan of the Fab-Four slightly misquotes “Hey Jude” by intoning, “Take the sad song, and make it better.”

That could serve as a thematic marker in the film, which is fairly grim until the end.

Indeed, “Gringo” has too much blood and death to fully warrant its billing as a comedy. Judging from the uneven trailer, I don’t think distributors even knew how to market it. Together with fact that I was all alone for its Williamsport debut last Thursday night, this suggests “Gringo” might sink without a trace.

That would be a bummer.

“Gringo” is something of an under-the-radar movie -- smart, interesting, thoughtful and well acted, with an utterly satisfying resolution.

David Oyelowo plays the hapless but likable Harold Soyinka, whose marriage and career implode during a company trip to Mexico. Surrounded by crooks, climbers and creeps -- including two rotten bosses (Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron) who are in cahoots with drug-dealers -- Harold struggles to maintain hope and integrity amid betrayal, kidnaping, gunfire, smuggling, adultery and the quest for a prized narcotic formula.

“Gringo” is the kind of multi-stranded caper where plot points bounce back and forth like billiard balls, constantly crossing paths as we wonder whether everything will drop into place at the end. Which it does -- with a flawless finale that kept me smiling right through the credits.

And there’s more to this than mere plot mechanics. Scripters Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis are asking whether it pays to be an upright, hard-working fellow like Harold; or do spoils always go to greedy, narcissistic liars -- which describes nearly everybody else in the film.

“Gringo” sure keeps you wondering -- and that, incidentally, is a narrative hook that’s nicely suited to Oyelowo’s persona. This fine actor -- letter-perfect as Martin Luther King in 2014’s “Selma” -- is technically in new territory with a crime thriller; but he’s as engaging as ever here. Our hope for Harold’s triumph in a sinister, self-serving world really keeps the movie moving.

So do other strong performances, particularly Edgerton (whose brother, Nash, makes his feature-film debut as director here). Theron bares teeth and claws and a good deal of lingerie, managing fairly well in a part that really is overwritten. And there’s further fine work by Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny, plus Sharlto Copley as an ex-mercenary enlisted to rescue Harold from the mess he wandered into.

The drug lord’s favorite Beatles album, by the way, is “Let It Be” -- and that’s a marker too. If he, like Harold, had heeded that mantra, he would’ve been a lot better off.

With its many F-bombs and other crudities, “Gringo” doesn’t quite qualify as Mother Mary speaking words of wisdom. But it does suggest: There will be an answer. . . .


directed by Nash Edgerton

Run time: 110 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated R for language throughout, violence and sexual content

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