I FINALLY caught up with Sicario after it managed to avoid me for a couple weeks, and while I’m glad I saw it, it did not blow me away. It’s a highly competent movie featuring highly competent actors, made by a bunch of highly competent people, but it’s only intermittently engaging and it does not offer any ideas or insights deeper than your average Nightline special. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) and starring Emily Blunt, Sicario is basically Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic with a dash of Michael Mann’s inscrutability. With Roger Deakins working as the director of photography, this is a gorgeous movie to look at, and Villeneuve puts together a few really tense action sequences, but in between the action beats the film is curiously flat, with characters who are all so painfully cool—and one who is epically dumb—that they’re more like ideas of people dreamed up by a sixteen year old boy who thinks CIA agents and hitmen are like, totally awesome.
Sicario is the first credited screenplay of actor and grown adult Taylor Sheridan, and at its heart is FBI tactical agent Kate Macer (Blunt), a by-the-book SWAT-type who leads a raid on a house in Arizona and discovers dozens of bodies hidden in the walls. Following her discovery she’s pulled into an inter-agency task force alongside Graver (Josh Brolin), a spook presumably from the Department of Defense, but c’mon, we all know he’s CIA from the moment he shows up in flip flops. The fact that Macer is the last person to realize she’s been working with a thinly-veiled CIA hit squad makes her the dumbest person in the movie, which undercuts the otherwise “strong female hero” vibe she gives off. Physically Macer is as capable of any of the men surrounding her, but none of the information we’re given about her adds up to a feasible character.
Macer has been working in Arizona for five years. This is not an insignificant amount of time—she’s young but she’s not a newbie. And yet somehow, she has NO IDEA about anything to do with the drug cartels making life miserable along the Mexican border. “She’s not an investigator,” her boss says, playing off her complete lack of knowledge regarding the primary cartel operating in her backyard, which seems unbelievable but Sicario asks us to go along with this, because Macer being even remotely interesting would get in the way of the real protagonist of the film, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). This is the best we’ve seen from Del Toro in years, and Alejandro barely has to speak in order to command the screen. Watching Alejandro work is way more interesting than anything Macer does, but we only get one sequence to really observe Alejandro in action. Not for nothing, it’s the best part of the film.
The moral of the story is that there is no room for heroes in the war on drugs, and otherwise good cops like Macer get chewed up and spit out by the amoral grind of fighting the cartels. Okay fine, except we’ve seen this story before, several times and in several different mediums from documentaries like Narco Cultura, to TV shows like The Bridge, to the aforementioned Traffic and even Michael Mann’s (uneven) Miami Vice movie. Sicario has nothing new to add to the conversation, except a female lead it renders useless by the third act. It’s a beautifully made film, though, and the action set pieces really are tense and effective. There’s enough payoff in the action to make Sicario feel satisfying, but underneath the combined polish of Villeneuve and Deakins is a hollow shell.