If Doug Liman’s thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow demonstrated and reinforced anything besides the inexhaustible movie stardom of Tom Cruise, it was that Emily Blunt was an action heroine of her own accord, more than capable of holding her ground next to the likes of Cruise. The good news is, she follows that revelation up with Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s forceful action/crime drama set in the midst of contemporary drug wars around the US-Mexican border. This is a meticulously slick, brawny, and set-piece-packed film that provides Blunt with a ripe stage to wow us with her physical and visceral strength once again. Yet the story somehow falls short of giving her opportunities that are her true match, and the awareness that she is capable of so much more with her vigorousness and ever-so-slight vulnerability dimly lingers over the film.
The script—penned by actor Taylor Sheridan—every so often chooses to push Blunt’s enthusiastic and idealistic FBI agent character Kate Macer to the sidelines, weighing an otherwise beefy film down, inventing occasions to hold her back from the action. You want Kate to become the Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs or Maya from Zero Dark Thirty of this story. Yet Sicario insists on remaining on the lite side of both of those films, with a story designed to ignore persistent character development and leave its female in the dark (even when the setup suggests otherwise) when all she wants is to be defined by her job, one at which she’s clearly aces.
Yes, the story is somewhat thin, the backdrop is dreadful, and the body count is out of control (as early as the opening moments). Thankfully, Sicario is still a meaty playground for the dexterously versatile French-Canadian director Villeneuve to roam around, following his Academy-Award winning wartime family drama Incendies in 2010, and the crime/thriller duo of Prisoners and Enemy in 2013. With Jóhann Jóhannsson’s heart-thumping music, which becomes audible even before the slightest resemblance of images take over the screen, Sicario is gripping and intense from the get-go, while we’re taken through an FBI raid led by Kate, where her team discovers more than 40 dead bodies buried in the walls of an Arizona safe house.
This only scratches the surface of a grim, worsening drug war between the US and Mexico, waiting to see its foulest days yet. Hired as part of an FBI team tasked with a mysterious mission (under the banner of “fighting a war against drugs”) following the disorienting raid, Kate proves her eagerness, capabilities, and capacity for the unknown task. Nevertheless, she continuously gets mislead by her superior Matt (Josh Brolin) and the curious consultant Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, in another drug-war-film after Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which earned him an Oscar), who serves both as the film’s cool factor and its occasional comic relief. Thinking that her task would be based in El Paso but finding herself in Mexico, Kate gently interrogates both Matt and Alejandro to no avail. Even when she feels satisfied with their answers, the on-screen discomfort confirms she will be in for further surprises while the overarching mission of hunting and bringing down a major drug lord takes unexpected twists and turns.
Sicario proves to have enough life and intrigue to maintain one’s interest through its 2-hour running time, chief of which are its cast’s collective appeal and Roger Deakins’ (working with Villeneuve once again after Prisoners) gorgeous cinematography that expertly plugs a tense, slow-burn rhythm into each shot, especially during the film’s last set piece. But its world is so degraded and over-the-top tarnished that one inevitably looks for a more substantial and urgent-feeling story to fully tune in to and care for. This impulse unfortunately goes unfulfilled as long stretches of tease (one of which blatantly wastes Kate as ‘bait’) take over and become the norm. We need no convincing that Villeneuve can orchestrate a complex, high-gear project and steer his ship effortlessly—just think of the weight of his next undertaking with the upcoming Blade Runner sequel that will unite him with Deakins again. He just needs a better story with more substance.