"Sicario" Ranks Among Great Drug Cartel Movies

Drug trafficking pic “Sicario” is a work of staggering self-confidence, the kind of movie that believes in itself so completely that audience apathy is all but impossible.

Taylor Sheridan’s methodical screenplay about the seedy underbelly of anti-cartel task forces is a wonder of pacing and tension, ably gnawing its way to the heart of humanity’s worst tendencies, laying eggs of cynicism and despair with nary a platitude in sight. It’s also frequently funny, its sense of humor never belying its sludgy, black core.

Then there’s the wonderfully measured direction of Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”). The filmmaker proves an almost perfect fit for the material.

With the aid of cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”) and composer Johann Johannsson (“The Theory Of Everything”), Villeneuve parlays Sheridan’s words into a beast of a drama that moves with purpose and precision, nearly crossing the finish line without so much as a blemish. Some late-game narrative hiccups crop up, but they’re not enough to undo the great work happening on both sides of the camera.

Emily Blunt (“Edge Of Tomorrow”) stars as Kate Macer, a shining beacon of positivity within a Phoenix kidnap response team. Tasked with one of the grisliest jobs imaginable – the movie opens on her and her team infiltrating a house stacked to the rafters with dead bodies – she remains steadfast in her idealism. These killers, these drug lords, can be stopped. And they can be stopped within the confines of the law.

But her optimism is pushed to its breaking point when she and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, “Black Mirror”), are hand-selected to be part of a shady special op. FBI Agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”), hubris incarnate, drops Kate into his world of underground interrogations and off-the-record dalliances with drug dealers and she’s sent reeling.

Kate is our eyes and ears, untested and blind to the inner workings of her new profession, and her perspective is the perfect one from which to tell this story. It allows Villeneuve to play up the small, observational moments inherent in strange, new surroundings, giving the movie a loud-quiet dynamic that keeps us on our toes.

A sequence that sees the team’s motorcade roll in and out of Juarez, Mexico is a thing of devastating suspense, simple and electric and terrifying.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Benicio Del Toro – in a typically juicy role as Alejandro, a morally flexible mercenary – who nearly runs away with the scene and the movie. The actor is no stranger to getting lost in roles, but here he takes his chameleonic reputation to a new level, always on the movie’s periphery, always a threat to detonate. Rarely has a screen character said so much in saying so little, and Del Toro threatens to overshadow the rest of the cast every time he’s on screen.

It’s a climactic scene featuring his character that nearly drives the movie off the rails, clumsily wresting the story away from Blunt at the worst possible moment. But a strong ending corrects course, rightfully returning “Sicario” to its heroine.

Ferocious and meditative is a challenging combo to pull off, but Villeneuve does it here, just like he did in “Prisoners” – and to a lesser degree, “Enemy” – cementing his reputation as one of today’s most reliable directors. “Sicario” is a frequently great movie, both timely and timeless, and should play well for decades to come.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 18, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)