Judging by the first few scenes, Sicario looks like a great chance to see Emily Blunt flex her literal and figurative acting muscles – another reminder of the Black Widow that could have been – in the role of a strong female lead working on a task force to take down a Mexican drug cartel. But what actually follows is much murkier and, arguably, much more true to life.
Sicario marks the third English language feature of French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. It also marks the third opportunity for this reviewer to finally fall in love with one of his efforts. The Academy Award nominated Incendies, probably his strongest film up to this point, was a cinematic experience that was certainly respectable, but hard to love. Prisoners, the beautiful looking but dramatically inert murder mystery from 2013, was sadly a misfire on all fronts. I never had a chance to see Enemy, but Sicario was my latest hope to finally have a Villeneuve film to call my own.
Sicario (Spanish for “hitman”) opens with Kate Macy (Blunt) positioning herself as a tough, principled FBI agent who is recruited for a special mission after discovering a horror house used by a drug cartel for storing dead bodies. Set against barren desert landscape and impoverished towns in Mexico, the film explores the corrupt and illegal manipulation used to take down the cartel’s leaders, pitting destructive and violent characters on both sides against one another. As the film drives forward, key members of the task force Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) take the mission on an obscure and dangerous path, as Macy becomes a proxy for the bewildered audience. Macy remains mostly in the dark on the mission’s true objective, but is repeatedly told that this is what it takes: bringing down a cartel isn’t accomplished by court ordered searches and legal lines of questioning.
Above all else, Sicario is a tight, tactical film. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in the industy, with films like Skyfall and No Country for Old Men under his belt, and director Villeneuve knows it, as this marks their second collaboration after Prisoners. Visually, the film feels like a No Country for Old Men/Zero Dark Thirty mash-up, interlacing shots of stark violence, beautiful landscape, and fast-paced action. One of the best scenes from any movie all year occurs in the film’s first half, when a traffic back-up near the border of Mexico leads to a bloody shoot out. The film ends with a visually experimental and captivating scene of the task force entering a tunnel on the border, shown through night vision, infrared, and other combat-based views. Those who are familiar enough with Deakins work should find this to be no surprise, but the man knows how to frame a dusty landscape, to the point where I literally felt the need to wipe my eyes at least once.
Though she wasn’t the Ripley-like badass I thought she’d be, Blunt’s performance in a role that required both intensity and restraint is impressive, and her status as the go-to action heroine for many a film fan continues to be secured. Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro work as an effective trio amongst the larger ensemble, but Blunt’s performance is likely to be noted as the standout. It's also a bit fun for the superhero movie fan to play "who was this person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?", with starring roles played by the current Thanos, The Collector, Agent Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez in a very compelling parallel role that might put some to mind of a wonderful issue of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. If you can name it, you win the internet.), and the new Punisher (Jon Bernthal pops in for a memorable set of scenes).
But while visually stunning and intriguing, the film’s final act is a bit of a let-down, as the story moves away from a more philosophical and global view of how the U.S. handles covert missions and becomes more personal for several of the key characters. It's as if someone decided to pull the plug last minute on the more thoughtful approach and weave in a Dirty Harry style revenge tale, which unfortunately does the double duty of undercutting one character's mystique while also derailing the film's thematic heft. Villeneuve attempts some form of course correction before the credits roll, but it almost becomes an overstretch at that point with one "on the nose" visual too many.
Still, these qualms are not enough to truly derail the film as the stunning visuals, intense action scenes, and solid performances mostly make up for the occasional lapses in the script. Sicario is likely the best offering yet from Villeneuve and is worth seeing for its impressive set pieces alone. It could very well be a strong Oscar player if it does well in wide release to keep the conversation going. My interest remains piqued in the next Villeneuve-Deakins team-up, the yet to be titled Blade Runner sequel.