Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/25/15 10:59:09

4 stars (Worth A Look)

From its opening moments, "Sicario" makes no bones about its desire to be considered a Great Film--there is not a single aspect to it that does not carry the weight of import about it. Considering that most films these days barely even try to work their way up to the level of merely adequate and even then miss the mark more often than not, such upfront ambition is something worth considering. The trouble is that while it is undeniably a good film in most respects, it is nowhere near the instant classic that it is clearly straining to be in nearly every scene and the disconnect between its ambitions and ultimate achievements prove to be somewhat distracting after a while--maybe not enough to discourage possible viewers from seeing it but enough to potentially make some viewers wonder what all the fuss was about.

The film does kick off with one of the year's more notable opening sequences, to be sure. In it, an F.B.I. raid on a suspected drug house located in a seemingly innocuous Arizona suburb becomes something altogether more appalling when agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) makes a discovery that leads to the revelation of more than 40 decomposing bodies hidden within its walls. That might sound like the height of horror to most of you but just when you think that things cannot possibly get any worse, they quickly and ferociously get much, much worse. Despite this, Mercer's work comes to the attention of certain higher-ups and she is asked to volunteer for a new inter-agency anti-cartel task force led by Matt Graver, who claims to be with the Department of Defense but who Mercer and her partner, (Daniel Kaluuya), suspect may be CIA. Nevertheless, she signs on in the naive hope that she can help make a difference and is soon off to El Paso to aid in busting a minor drug lord that can hopefully lead them to a much bigger drug lord (). Standing out amongst the other members of the squad is a guy known only as Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who is supposedly a former prosecutor from Mexico aiding in the task force investigation but who sure doesn't act like one, especially when he answers Mercer's pressing for detail about what is about to transpire by saying "Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do."

He isn't kidding, especially when it turns out that the drug lord they are pursuing isn't actually in El Paso as much as he is just across the border in Mexico awaiting a top secret pickup and return to the U.S. This is, of course, not even remotely legal or sanctioned but Mercer winds up going along with it, partly out of curiosity and partly because really, what else can she do at that point. Although things get hairy at the U.S./Mexico border during the return trip, the group brings their quarry back and Matt and Alejandro begin getting the necessary information from their target--making sure to turn the camera in the room off first--while Mercer tries to figure out what the hell just happened. As things progress, she is constantly being reassured that her actions are a vital part of a significant offensive against the cartels but to Mercer's eyes, all she is seeing is how the task force is increasingly ignoring the rules of law they are supposed to be working under. As tensions increase, Mercer tries to get to the bottom of what the real reasons are behind both the task force and her presence on it, whether the results begin to justify the methods used to achieve them and just who is actually employing the ever-mysterious Alejandro.

On paper, "Sicario" may sound reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" or the various crime dramas of MIchael Mann and if one of them had been at the helm here, it might have indeed become the modern crime masterpiece that it yearns to be. Instead, it was directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous efforts have included the creepy mind-bender "Enemy" and "Prisoners," an achingly pretentious "Death Wish" knockoff aimed at audiences who would have never dreamed of seeing a real "Death Wish" film. The guy is clearly talented but he is so busy here trying to create Art that he sometimes forgets that he is supposed to be telling a story at the same time. For example, cinematographer Roger Deakins turns in one ravishing image after another, the kind of such stunning beauty that when the Blu-Ray comes out, you could pause on any random moment and study it in the way that one might with a painting. The trouble is that they are so hypnotically beautiful that they take viewers out of the story for a few crucial moments with virtually every scene change. Meanwhile, Taylor Sheridan's screenplay starts off as a study in confusion but eventually succumbs to that same malady thank to a number of plot developments that either never quite come off as anticipated (such as our occasional glances of the daily life of an anonymous Mexican cop who winds up playing a key role in the final scenes) or are just kind of silly (such as a tryst gone wrong between Mercer and a guy she meets in a bar the night after making another bust). As for the final scenes, I will not give away anything except to note that the story moves from the political to the personal and to these eyes, the shift in narrative gears just doesn't work, though the people who inexplicably celebrated "Prisoners" might feel otherwise.

And yet, while "Sicario" may not quite work as a whole, many of the individual parts are quite excellent. There are at least three standout sequences that are alone worth the price of admission--the opening raid on the Arizona house, a climactic shootout between the task force and drug runners in a chain of underground tunnels spanning the border that is captured largely via night-vision goggle (imagine the finale of "Silence of the Lambs" with far more gunfire) and, most impressive of all, the stunning setpiece in which Mercer and the other task force members stave off a potential ambush while caught in a traffic jam at the U.S./Mexico border, a scene that manages to offer up kinetic thrills of a kind not seen on a movie screen since "Fury Road" despite the fact that none of the cars are moving. The lead performances are also strong as well--Emily Blunt might not immediately spring to mind as ideal casting for a hard-charging Fed but she is throughly convincing in both the action-heavy scenes as well as the more dramatic moments and Brolin and Del Toro are equally good as her shadowy compatriots. And as distracting as it may be at times, Roger Deakins' cinematography is almost as stunning as the fact that even though he is one of the unquestioned masters of his craft, he has yet to win an Oscar despite 12 previous nominations.

"Sicario" never quite lives up to its lofty pretensions--it tries just a little too hard to call attention to its own presumed greatness despite having a screenplay that is just a little too messy for its own good. That said, while I might have gotten irritated with it at times, especially towards its too calculatedly cynical ending, I can't say that I was ever bored with it and there are certainly enough good scenes and performances in it to warrant a recommendation. This is not a feel-good movie by any stretch of the imagination and some of the imagery on display may be too grisly for some viewers but those with a strong stomach and slightly lowered expectations should find it to be a valuable moviegoing experience.

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