by Coop Cooper
Every once in awhile, an action/crime drama will raise the bar in what is often a humdrum and stagnant genre. The style has become more sophisticated over the decades. Actors stopped shooting from the hip and got training from professionals. Lengthy and over-the-top, Hong Kong styled shootouts eventually gave way to a more realistic form of screen combat. The excitement now seems to come from seeing the actors performing accurate tactical reloads and dealing with the tension before impending violence and the traumatic aftermath. “Sicario” utilizes this new style effectively and even manages to elevate the genre.
FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) makes a horrifying discovery while raiding a suburban home in a border town during a hostage rescue. Her tactical experience and her bravery during the raid gains the attention of shadowy government operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who recruits Kate as an inter-departmental liaison to oversee the takedown of a Mexican drug kingpin. Accompanying Graver is the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who doesn’t speak much except to give Kate advice on how to stay alive when a mission goes sideways. As Graver puts Kate into further dangerous and illegal situations, she begins to question her involvement in the operation and Alejandro’s true motives.
This film feels similar in tone and execution to “Zero Dark Thirty”. It’s a slow burn with scenes of quick, intense violence, but the tension never lets up throughout. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins composes a beautifully stylized picture and color palette for “Sicario”.
Emily Blunt has proven herself a highly versatile actress after taking more challenging and physically demanding roles like in “Looper” and “Edge of Tomorrow”. Here, she continues her streak of hard boiled roles as an FBI Agent who specializes in kicking in doors and engaging armed suspects. Her performance in “Sicario” is every bit as strong and important as Jessica Chastain’s Oscar-winning performance in “Zero Dark Thirty”. Even if Blunt doesn’t receive a nomination, her performance here will put the Academy on notice.
It’s no surprise what attracted Benicio Del Toro to the character of Alejandro. Almost nothing is known about him in the first two thirds of the film except that he fears nothing, is always the first to sense danger and always wins the gunfight. He has a backstory. It’s a good one and you won’t find out who he is or what he is doing until the end. He feels like a more jaded and aggressive version of his Oscar-winning character in “Traffic” but he could also be compared to Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills character from the “Taken” franchise. Perhaps that’s what Del Toro is looking for with his Alejandro’s character. Not an acting award, but a cool character with the potential to launch a new franchise series. Alejandro could definitely qualify for that.
Josh Brolin often plays the noble type but seems just as comfortable here playing a sleazebag black-ops guy who doesn’t care who gets tortured or how many bodies pile up, as long as he achieves his objective. His character finds amusement in keeping Kate in dark and using her as an expendable asset, but the film suggests he has done the right thing in the results of his efforts.
It is for this reason “Sicario” casts a bleak shadow on the future of crime on the U.S./Mexico border. The film does not paint Mexico in any favorable light and portrays Juarez as a war zone on par with Syria. It’s a world where the atrocities and violence committed by the cartels have become so extreme, the only way to battle it is by matching their brutality and terror tactics. It seems like a message more liberal audiences wouldn’t be too thrilled to accept, the idea that a closed border is simply not enough to defend against what amounts to a covert attack by a foreign enemy. It’ll be interesting to see if the left-leaning Academy will punish this film for that point of view come awards season, but as cynical and alarming as the message seems, this film does lean decidedly right.
Whatever the case, “Sicario” is tense, thrilling, superbly-acted and impeccably shot. Even the slow parts are interesting to watch and I think it will be known as a trend-setter among upcoming action/crime dramas.
4 and ½ out of 5