Lurking beneath the surface of all of Lech Kowalski's films is a cynical awareness of man's limitations. This pessimism reaches its nadir in Gringo. During the opening credits, which announce that this is a Troma production titled Story of a Junkie, the film would appear to be the most sordid of exploitation "documentaries." Though luridly photographed in a blur of saturated colors and the pitch dark of slums, Kowalski grafts his pulp narrative over a barely concealed reality of addict stasis.
He follows East Village junkie John Spacely aka "Gringo" as he chases down his next fix in the dregs of early '80s Manhattan. Hokey stiffly staged sequences of drug dealings and street shootings are mixed with unbearably drawn out displays of kids shooting up, throwing up, and repeatedly stabbing themselves trying to find a good vein in tenement apartments, bathrooms, and stairwells. In first person interviews addicts make clichéd statements about their love affair with the "cruel mistress" heroin, expound on how cocaine is a beautiful drug that everyone should use, and sincerely opine on how drug dealing as an economic model can save the city.
The epic denial in this tough talk laced with self-protective slang shades from darkly humorous to depressing and exasperating. By juxtaposing Gringo's partially faked story (his gradual downfall, the reveal of the personal depression that is the source of drug use, the painful but triumphant recovery) with narrative-defying reality, Kowalski captures the predictable degradation of drug addiction at its most devastating. The coda, the most bitterly ironic from a director fond of them, shows Spacely clean, skateboarding through the streets of Lower Manhattan to the doo wop lilt of "Since I Don't Have You." It feels wonderfully refreshing, but suspiciously false given what we've already seen. The redemptive moment Kowalski gives his protagonist is fleeting. Spacely would die from AIDS complications not long after shooting had ended.