WRITTEN REVIEW – Sicario (2015)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Jon Bernthal & Julio Cedillo
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Release Date: October 8th 2015
Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian director who had been grinding away at the short-film circuit gaining notoriety at the Cannes Film Festival before his movie ‘Incendies‘ was nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2011 Academy Awards. That gave him some clout to make his first mainstream hit ‘Prisoners‘ in 2013 which had big-name talent such as Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal and that success has snowballed to Villeneuve signing on to direct the upcoming ‘Blade Runner‘ remake.
But until that remake of dubious merit, Villeneuve is still riding high off of ‘Prisoners‘ (which made it into my Top 10 films of 2013) by re-teaming with Gyllenhaal for ‘Enemy‘, directing an adaptation of the sci-fi short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chaing starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and now directing a drug-war thriller starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. As for Villeneuve’s ethos for filmmaking, if ‘Prisoners‘ and ‘Sicario‘ are any indication he holds quite a lot of contempt for humanity as ‘Sicario‘ may be a good movie but it sure as hell ain’t a fun watch.
Revolving around the FBI’s war against the drug cartel in Mexico, ‘Sicario‘ follows Kate Macer (Blunt) who wants to take down those responsible for a drugs bust gone awry. She volunteers to be a part of the CIA’s Special Activities Devision led by Matt Gravers (Brolin) and his mysterious partner Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro). The group Kate is assigned to, Delta Squad, travel to Juárez, Mexico to extract a prisoner who works for one of the most notorious cartel bosses in the region. But as Delta Squad start to step outside their jurisdiction and test the confines of the law, Kate must decide whether or not the ends justify the means in a region filled with escalating violence.
From that plot description above, you can probably tell that ‘Sicario‘ is not exactly treading on new ground here. The concept of whether or not the ends justify the means or whether or not those who enforce the law have to resort to more violence and brutality in order to take down those breaking the law etc has been a rich, moral well in fiction. Trite foundations don’t necessarily mean a bad movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but ‘Sicario‘s end result or what it has to say about these well-worn themes aren’t unique or novel either. Once again, that’s not to say ‘Sicario‘ is bad, but it ain’t original or fresh.
However, ‘Sicario‘ is definitely one of the most pessimistic outlooks on the Western drug war in recent memories. Director Denis Villeneuve, after his success with ‘Prisoners‘, continues to delve deep into mankind’s worse traits and tendencies in which almost everyone in the entire cast is morally bankrupt or forced to commit terrible acts in the sake of “law” or their own preservation. It doesn’t even offer an interesting main-character perspective as Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer is just an idealistic FBI agent whose world-view is torn apart.
But the main character of ‘Sicario‘, the aforementioned Kate, is one of the biggest problems with the movie as she is given no information as to why she’s being brought on these missions, what she is meant to do on these missions and just who are the people she’s meant to assist in bringing in. Yes, she works as an audience surrogate character as she learns about the twists and the turns at the same time as the viewer, but she’s kept in the dark to such an obnoxious extent (she is brought into war-zones and is given ZERO instructions or even targets) that there’s literally no reason for her to stay with Delta Squad for as long as she does outside of her doe-eyed idealism and for the sake of keeping the plot going.
That’s not to diminish how great Emily Blunt is in the role and she’s clearly proved herself as an action-star before in films like ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘ but despite the trailers selling ‘Sicario‘ as “Emily Blunt kicks ass in Mexico!” the movie is nothing like that as Kate Macer, while capable with a gun, is very much kicked around and exploited at every turn by her squad leaders. Also, the unintended consequence of Kate being the only noteworthy female presence in the movie and her sole function being bullied by her (male) partners and her always chastising them for not following rules or regulations plays into the terrible stereotype of “nagging” or “buzzkill” female co-workers.
Josh Brolin fares slightly batter as Matt Graver in that he’s not a “buzzkill” and enjoys the acts of brutality he commits. Though, in what is meant to be a realistic-feeling drug cartel story, his character is written and acted so cartoonishly that he isn’t very believable. It’s not a scenary-chewing performance but considering what this character does over the course of the movie, his attitude and dialogue just doesn’t line-up because he’s enjoying himself far too much. No one like this would be put in charge of a CIA squad. But Brolin still has a great, natural screen presence.
But the MVP of this movie is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro Gillick. While ‘Prisoners‘ had very little presence at the Academy Awards the year it came out (save for “Best Cinematography” for Roger Deakins), if ‘Sicario‘ should get nominated for anything it’s Del Toro’s stand-out, intimidating performance, particularly towards the end of the movie when his character’s deal is established and the length’s he’s willing to go for…well, you’ll see. Other cast members of note are Jon Bernthal (who knew he was such a heartthrob?) and Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s work-partner.
Now you probably think I hate ‘Sicario‘ because I haven’t been particularly positive about it thus far, but that’s mainly because its strengths come from its topical themes, downbeat nature and production values. Let’s tackle those in order, shall we?
The war on drugs in Mexico is a modern-day tragedy and ‘Sicario‘ doesn’t pull any punches in portraying life in Juárez as a result of crime lords, drug bosses etc. An extended sequence where Delta Squad drive through Juárez is (so I’ve been told) very accurate in its current state where dead bodies can be found shot-up on the streets, including decapitated and dismembered bodies hung under bridges to serve as a warning and gun-shots continually sounding off in the distance. Whether or not taking down one notorious drug lord or cartel in Juárez can put a stop to any of this is where the movie dedicates a significant portion of its time but the answer it lands on isn’t particularly cheery or uplifting. This is Denis Villeneuve we’re talking about here. The guy clearly doesn’t hold a high opinion of humanity.
And yeah, ‘Sicario‘ is a downbeat movie. From its very first scene, to its depiction of the Americans in authority to the final actions of Kate Macer at the end of the film, ‘Sicario‘ is not fun or even remotely optimistic. Once again, those wanting an Emily Blunt arse-kicking movie as promised by the trailers will leave disappointed.
And the production values. ‘Sicario‘ is a prime example of a ho-hum script being elevated almost entirely by its production values. ‘Sicario‘ is a wonderfully filmed movie and when Roger Deakins’ name came up in the credits I was not even remotely surprised. The 12-time Academy Award nominee (but no wins despite being ROBBED by ‘Life of Pi‘ in 2013) does terrific, sharp work in ‘Sicario‘ with the stand-out sequence being a wonderfully shot convoy scene as Delta Squad make their way over the Bridge of America into Juárez and back. It’s almost like a choreographed ballet the way the black SUVs weave their way through the traffic and through border-patrol.
But Deakins is on top-form here with some wonderful lighting, particularly in a 3rd act sequence where Delta Squad make their way through a dank tunnel. The knife shot (that’s all I’ll say) is so gorgeous that it could easily be framed. Deakins almost single-handedly bumps ‘Sicario‘ up into “see-it” status, but the rest of the production is strong as well. Jóhann Jóhannsson reunites again with Villeneuve after ‘Prisoners‘ and while his score is a bit repetitive and high on base, it still successfully engineers a lot of audience tension in the final sequence as well as under-scoring a scene where Delta Squad are stuck in stationary traffic making their way out of Juárez. Make-up effects are also very strong with wince-inducing injuries, great use of practical blood as well as convincing, gruesome corpses.
‘Sicario‘ is treading on well-worn material and does a…passable job. The cast are uniformly strong, though Josh Brolin seems to have stepped in from an entirely different movie (though he’s still good), but Emily Blunt’s character is, to put it lightly, mis-handled and the screenplay isn’t particularly original. But a stand-out character brought to life by Benicio Del Toro, incredible cinematography and direction as well as strong music and well-handled tense set-pieces, plus an impactful ending does bump ‘Sicario‘ up the rankings significantly. It’s not a fun movie nor an original one but it’s well assembled.
I give ‘Sicario‘, the 100th movie I’ve reviewed on this website, 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews
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Posted: 17th Oct 15