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USA 2015
Directed by
Denis Villeneuve
121 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Sicario

Synopsis: After a particularly nasty drug bust, a hardworking, by-the-book FBI agent (Emily Blunt) volunteers for a joint task force mission targeting the big bosses of the ruthless Mexican drug cartels.

Drug wars films are always good value when it comes to swarthy expendables, no holds-barred shoot-outs and dirty deeds done dirt cheap.  Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario doesn’t disappoint in this department but it also doesn’t reach the level of his work in recent years: Enemy, Prisoners, and Incendies.

What is good about Sicario is that Villenueve keeps the film well beyond the reach of a standard issue Hollywood action film. Early in proceedings is a bloody shoot-out set in a traffic jam at the US-Mexico border but it is economically if brutally brief.  Indeed all the death scenes are like that and there is no indulgence in action set-pieces. Villeneuve keeps the story focused on the characters: Blunt’s naïve FBI agent; Josh Brolin’s pragmatic and deceptively hail-fellow-well-met government agent and Benicio Del Toro’s brooding avenger.  Both Blunt and Brolin hold our attention but it is Del Toro’s existentially ultra-cool terminator who steals the show.  Matching the film’s concern with showing us how the Mexican side of the border has literally become a war zone, Roger Deakins’s cinematography is appropriately realistic, capturing the pitiless sun-leached day-time settings or cleverly switching, thanks to editor Joe Walker, between different visual modes for a military-like night-time raid whilst Jóhann Jóhannsson delivers a throbbing score that propels the story forward superbly.

Where the film loses traction somewhat is in Taylor Sheridan’s script. Whilst having a female as the centre of attention is a refreshing move, somewhat oddly she remains throughout the film no match for her two male colleagues. Given his previous films it would make perfect sense for Villenueve to try a Zero Dark Thirty (and the night raid suggests that film as a point of reference) with this story of a principled woman confronting male expediency but that is not how the film plays. Other than in the above-mentioned shoot-out, Kate largely bumbles her way through events and doesn’t even manage honour in defeat. Perhaps the intention was to show the irrelevance of moral values in this brutal world but it seems perverse to cast a woman and establish her as experienced and capable if she is going to be so thoroughly brushed aside.  A male protagonist might have upped the testosterone quotient dangerously but a clash of male egos would have invigorated the fundamental conflict. (And in an somewhat odd development Kate is given an Afro-American partner who is as, if not more, irrelevant to proceedings and who initially had been dismissed from contention for the team, or at least my impression was such). In terms of plot too, the script seems rather under-cooked as it steps largely obstacle-free to its resolution.

These weaknesses aside, Sicario delivers compelling action with intelligence and is an above-average addition to the drug war film catalogue. 

 

 

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