“Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve’s menacing manhunt melodrama “Sicario” (**** OUT OF ****) treats the war against drug cartels and their smuggling operations with even greater cynicism than even the recent David Ayer’s opus “Sabotage” with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Imagine combining “Silence of the Lambs” with “Zero Dark Thirty,” and you’ve got the essence of this no-nonsense, atmospheric epic that boasts more shades of gray than black and white. Emily Blunt plays a by-the-book FBI agent who wades into the murky depths of corruption and evil that threaten to undermine her sanity. Josh Brolin and Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro co-star as the hardcases who need her shield so their shady business doesn’t violate the letter of the law. “Sicario” isn’t a slick, superficial, standard-issue, shoot’em up with sensational stunts. Primarily, “Sicario” argues that the best way to eliminate drug cartels is to fight fire with fire. Similarly, “Sabotage” appropriated that attitude toward the cartels, but it lacked the credibility that “Sicario” delivers. The good guys don’t wear white hats in “Sicario.” They display the same conspicuous lack of regard for human life that their adversaries espouse. You don’t walk out of “Sicario” feeling relieved so much as horrified by what it takes to conquer the evil that cartels do. This spartan crime thriller features enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up to its ending that may abrade your sense of moral rectitude.
“Sicario” opens with a bang as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt of “Edge of Tomorrow”), her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), and the Bureau’s Kidnap Response Team smash into a residence in a sleepy little subdivision in sunny Arizona and discover the cartel has been using it as stash house. They scramble inside to rescue hostages, but they find the walls of the house conceal 42 corpses like a contemporary catacomb. Two agents tamper with a booby-trapped outside tool shed, and the explosion shreds them and flattens everybody else. Afterward, a nonchalant guy in flip-flops, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin of “Gangster Squad”), schedules a meeting with Macer’s superior, Dave Jennings (Victor Gaber of “Argo”), and invites Kate to accompany an inter-agency task force bound for Mexico to pick up a cartel informant. Macer signs up. Later, she watches in horror as Graver and a convoy of black government SUVs careen into Juárez, Mexico. Graver’s tight-lipped, second-in-command, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro of “Savages”), warns Kate not to trust their Mexican Federal Police escort. The naked bodies of dangling corpses garnish the perimeter of this eerie setting. Everything boils down to pulling one individual, Guillermo Diaz (Edgar Arreola of “Machete”), out of a safe house and hauling him back across the border for interrogation. Not surprisingly, the trip into Mexico is a picnic compared with the trip out. The Task Force finds themselves snarled up in a traffic jam at the border crossing. They aren’t entirely surprised when they spot cartel gunmen itching to waste them, and an inevitable shootout ensues. Just as Alejandro warned Kate, the corrupt Mexican Federal Police side with the cartel gunmen and our anxious heroine takes out an MFP officer with well-aimed shots. As suddenly as the shootout erupted, it concludes.
All is not what it appears, and Kate suspects that Graver is a really a CIA agent and Alejandro is a freelance enforcer. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” Alejandro assures Kate. “And you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end you will understand.” Eventually, she realizes she is being used to lend Graver’s operation a semblance of legality. When she confides her fears to his superior, Dave reassures Kate that everything is above-aboard and Graver’s mission has the blessings of highly placed elected officials. Graver explains that Alejandro and he aim to create so much chaos within cartel ranks that the Mexicans will turn on themselves and start killing their own men. This strategy is designed to flush out an anonymous cartel chief whose identity remains a closely guarded secret. Alejandro promises Kate that exposure of this figure will prove catastrophic for this coldblooded criminal organization. The biggest action scene in “Sicario” has Kate and company entering a covert cartel tunnel, shades of the Vin Diesel thriller “Fast Five,” and wiping out cartel henchmen in those subterranean depths with a clandestine army of SWAT shooters equipped with night vision technology.
“Sicario” qualifies as an impressive, but cynical crime movie. Apart from the heroine and her partner, the protagonists are as unscrupulous as the villains that they keep in their gun sights. Meantime, Kate Macer cannot believe that she has gotten herself trapped in this web of amorality. As idealistic as she is, Kate believes in the rule of law, but she emerges tarnished mentally if not physically by the experience with Graver and Alejandro. Although the talented Emily Blunt toplines this law & order saga, an unshaven Benicio Del Toro claims top honors as a PTSD-afflicted gunman. He plays a former Mexican prosecutor who has suffered more than anybody. The cartel decapitated his wife and drowned his young daughter in a vat of acid, so he shoots first unless he has to ask questions before he obliterates his enemies with lead. Del Toro gives a smoldering performance. Josh Brolin isn’t far behind as an enigmatic CIA agent who deals with every encounter with his adversaries as if he were a surfer gauging waves at the beach. Nothing in “Sicario” comes off feeling contrived, glamour, and formulaic. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve stages the action scenes at the border crossing and the tunnel with an impersonal air of solemnity. British cinematographer Roger Deakins of “No Country for Old Men” depicts these escapades in dark, muted colors reminiscent of the classic Dutch painter Rembrandt that effectively captures the moral depravity perpetrated by the principals. Watching a movie like “Sicario,” you have to wonder whether the wholesale legalization of narcotics—repellent as a solution might seem–wouldn’t offer greater salvation as a whole for everybody rather than futile free-for-all combat.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts