Québec born director Denis Villeneuve has come a long way since breaking onto the scene with 2000’s Maelström, the film that truly put his talent on the map for all to admire. Now, with Sicario, he has an action-thriller, American production starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin with his signature on it. Villeneuve appears to have succeeded where several other non-American directors that tried to make into Hollywood have failed. José Padhila (Robocop 2014), Jee-woon Kim (The Last Stand), some very, very talented directors collaborating with very talented people did not reach the level of critical acclaim and box office success that Villeneuve has in his relatively short American career. Sicario is as big as his projects have gotten thus far, to say nothing of what is coming next: a Blade Runner sequel in collaboration with his Prisoners partner, Roger Deakins. Does bigger necessarily equal better, however?
Kate Macer (Blunt) is a youthful FBI agent that specializes in kidnap rescue missions in the southern United States. Her latest mission lands her in Phoenix, Arizona, where kidnap victims of a Mexican drug lord are said to be located in a rundown, dusty building. Sadly, Kate and her team arrive too late, only to make the grisly discovery of cadavers wrapped in plastic hidden behind the cheap walls. Following this trying, eventful case, her name is brought up as a potential advisor for a secretive federal task force led by Matt Graver (Brolin), Jennings (Victor Garber) and the mysterious Alejandro (del Toro), whose role and place within the FBI is not made entirely clear. Kate is whisked away with her new team to Juarez, Mexico (clearly outside of the FBI’s jurisdiction) to smuggle a known drug lord into the U.S.. Surprised by this judiciously dubious mission, Kate is soon to understand that her government is willing to bend any and all rules to get its man, even partnering with odd personalities such as Alejandro, a man with his own score to settle.
Right from the onset, Sicario announces that it has big intentions, among them its willingness to thrust audiences deep into the ruthless world of covert FBI missions. The first 10 minutes are a genre-bending festival of action, horror and police procedural. Kate is quite good with a firearm and has tremendous reflexes to boot. She is a leader that has earned the respect of her peers and that of the team members lower in the hierarchical scale. It serves as an excellent opening, on the one hand by reassuring viewers that director Villeneuve, up until now not known for directing action, is more than up to the task of ratcheting up the tension and delivering the goods when the firearms go off, and on the other hand by establishing the character Kate Macer. Blunt, having impressed movie goers only a year ago with her action-movie potential in Edge of Tomorrow, is also a tremendous actress, capable of injecting nuance and humanity into any role. Her Kate is of course tough, as any FBI task force leader needs to be, but humane and three-dimensional.
The quality of the visuals and sounds, employed both for visceral effects and to set whatever mood and tone a sequence requires, continues all the way through the picture. Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and composer Johan Johansson combine their talents to produce a very harsh film, one that is just as good at communicating the palpable tension involved when a newbie like Kate is involved in a dangerous mission in a dangerous city she knows very little about, as it is offering brief snippets of the culture of the places she visits (a shot of two people slapping a tennis ball against a graffiti-infested wall with their hands as opposed to rackets says a lot about a location). Villeneuve is attentive to the little details and the big ones that help drive both story and tone, a talent more modern day directors could learn a thing or two about.
Equaling, if not surpassing Emily Blunt’s strong performance, is Benecio del Toro as Alejandro. The actor is nothing if not gifted, a man that has played altruistic characters, flawed characters, and the vilest cretins imaginable. His role in Sicario is a bizarre melding of all the aforementioned qualities, putting him in stark contrast to Blunt’s Kate. Whereas she prefers running things by the book (aided in no small part by her partner and law school grad Reggie, played by Daniel Kaluuya), Alejandro is very much the wild card. He appears, on the surface, to be fighting the good fight, but if murder and torture are required to extract information, then so be it. Thus, Sicario finds one of its thematic strengths, a clash of philosophies fought on a grand scale in a deadly covert operation. Kate is the definition of the good officer. Alejandro is, well, whatever the circumstances need him to be.
It is this idea of the American government engaging in all necessary acts in order to satisfy it interests that partially provides the film its energy. Granted, this is not a new idea, least of all in film, but on the whole Villeneuve and company do a decent job at juggling its various aspects without Sicario ever falling prey to jingoism. What holds the film back from reaching greatness is in fact the script, courtesy of known actor but first time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. While it is interesting to leave viewers and Kate in the dark for a significant stretch with respect to what the team is truly after and who they are truly working for, the story gets a bit laborious in the final act when revelations are shared. It never completely loses focus on what it sets out to do, but it isn’t as taut once Kate starts getting some answers the hard way. What’s more, after serving up a couple of really well set-up action sequences earlier in the film, the climactic battle, from a visual standpoint, is a bit of a dud. Sicario is two hours long and, after while, does start to feel its length if just a little bit.
Sicario is a large scale, beautifully shot crime thriller, gifted with an exceptional cast, chief among them Emily Blunt and Benecio del Toro, both of whom make their characters memorable. Its themes are far from uninteresting although nothing that hasn’t been tackled before in movies and its script could have used some polish in the final act. Even so, it is worth seeing on the big screen, certainly for the brilliant tension boiling in many scenes and the lead performances.