It’s Spanish for superb…
Crime thrillers are ten a penny nowadays but the lure of tackling the Mexican Cartel still proves attractive. Whilst the Mafia – American & Italian – and Yakuza have been done to death, the secretive nature that surrounds the Cartel appeals as they are always portrayed in the news as the gang that go to extreme lengths to make their intentions known. There’s been hardly any comical handling in western media of this dangerous group, and the Cartel are accurately portrayed as a force to be reckoned with, which is where director Denis Villeneuve of Prisoners fame excels in delivering a brutal and dark yet spot-on tale of the USA’s war against the Cartel.
After years of dealing with the problems caused with the Cartel and U.S. authorities on her side of the border, SWAT agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow) decides to take shadey government official Matt Graver’s (Josh Brolin, Everest) offer of making a difference and joining in his missions against the Cartel. Hanging around in the background is the mysterious force that is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro, Ché) who both aids and interrupts Kate. As Kate gets involved more with the group, her role becomes clear as she finds out the true reason of her purpose on the final mission and Gillick’s intentions.
The rawness of the Cartel and their methods is aimed more at the psychological rather than a graphical depiction. Barring one or two non-gory action scenes, we’re left to see the end results or listening to discussion of what flat out horrible & disgusting activities the gang gets up to, and here it proves less is definitely more.
When your film opens with a seemingly normal border townhouse on the US side of the border and they start peeling varying states of decay corpses from the walls, your mind starts thinking to the who, what, how and why of the poor victims. Indeed, the aftermath is seen more often as we travel into Mexico and see the numerous mutilated corpses of unspeakable attacks & revenge maimings. We don’t really see a face behind the actual violence so the autonomity adds to the constant threat that anyone can be a member. With the employ of various crooked officials on both sides of the border, the film reminds you to keep your guard at all times as the usual safety net you turn to maybe your downfall. It all makes for a grim experience as Kate steps more & more into a world with few friends and more enemies who will finish her without a spare though. All accurate, all haunting, all realistic, all marvellous.
The scene where Kate’s team is extracting a former leader of the Cartel through a vehicular transfer on the Mexican/United States border and Kate is guided by Gillick to spot the numerous Cartel members with guns cocked and ready whilst they’re on a ‘wait until engaged’ order is gripping as you wait for it to kick off. This being but one example of how Villeneuve magnificently creates a hyper-tense atmosphere with Sicario; keeping you on your toes throughout; as Kate’s viewpoint is one of cutting caution, as he realises that the front line of the war between the US and the Cartel is filled with danger. Even though she keeps her cards close to her chest and has her sidekick by her side to help her cope, she is still the soft target of her new team as she soon learns her SWAT training does not help in his dirty, ‘take no prisoners’ war on drugs and gangs.
Sicario also deserves credit for magnificently turning left instead of right in it’s final quarter. The true nature of the brilliantly shot night raid in a cross border drug tunnel is revealed as we move away from the war itself into a simple but strong revenge mission. Whilst some films hold back when it comes to the confrontation we see, and the bleak series of events when it comes to family, Sicario offers you legitimately shocking character action (as revenge is a dish best served cold and calculated as you see your enemy broken down to less than a man). Whilst the events are murky, the appreciation for seeing the events unfold in some perfect framing from Villeneuve and some rather moving acting is off the chart. Has to be seen to be believed.
Although, with this sudden departure from the expectation of the film, it leaves a character at a loose end – Kate herself. We’ve spent 75% of Sicario watching from her point of view only for her to be kicked to the side as we get a resolution to Gillick’s part of the plot. The tense build and horrific experience we have with Kate nearly get washed away as insignificant as the true nature of the plot is revealed. It has to happen for Sicario to truly be as effective as it is, yet I offer no apologies for appearing butthurt after having a brilliant piece of character events placed in front of me, only to be told “oh it doesn’t quite matter sorry.”
That’s not to say Blunt is awful in this – she’s great. Although Kate as a character suffers with some pretty dumb, not taking orders literally schtick, Blunt puts in yet another kick-ass female protagonist performance that she is rapidly developing a market on. She manages to create a lot of sympathy for Kate in her performance, as she usually ends up on the worse end of a situation yet coming out a tad more wiser & stronger. That ending as well, when she is totally powerless and is forced into a situation she doesn’t believe in, is truly fitting of the nature of the war – her virtues that she holds dear from her SWAT days are swept off as she’s forced to use some underhanded tactics to survive.
del Toro is doing what he does best as the quiet Central American type that you soon realise knows more than he lets on. He gets in a cool couple action moments and his set of final scenes are utterly believable & moving given Gillick’s history. Whilst the focus isn’t always on him, Brolin still does more than enough to leave an impression; clearly having some fun being let loose as the streetwise Graver who only lets in Kate on what she needs to know until it’s too late and the dust settles.
There’ve been some pretty high scoring reviews for Sicario elsewhere and anyone who’s seen the film would be inclined to agree. With a fascinating subject, it’s given the tense depiction that the brutal war between the U.S. and the Cartel deserves with a brilliant turn in the plot. With three superb performances, coupled with Villeneuve’s masterfully on-edge direction, Sicario is a crisp breath of fresh air in the starved for quality year that is 2015 so far.