Monday, October 05, 2015

SICARIO: A Superbly Dark Cartel Counterinsurgency Thriller

Now playing at multiplexes from here to the borderline:

SICARIO (Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Emily Blunt proves her action star turn in last year’s terrific Tom Cruise vehicle EDGE OF TOMORROW was no fluke in this superbly dark cartel counterinsurgency thriller in which she plays a tough as nails F.B.I. agent named Kate Macer.

After a gripping opening that has she and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluyya) storming a Mexican drug lord's safe house in Arizona, Kate gets recruited by Department of Defense advisers Matt Graver (a typically brash Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) for a high-risk CIA-led drug operation across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kate increasingly senses that the system behind the mission is incredibly corrupt, partly because she can’t figure out who the task force actually works for (particularly De Toro’s ultra shady Alejandro), and if their tactics are doing more harm than good, especially in the chaos of a traffic jam shootout on the outside of Juarez, Mexico.

The team is following a bloody trail that leads to drug kingpin Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo), who it is revealed brutally murdered Alejandro’s wife and daughter. Kate learns this following a raid of the cartel's secret cocaine-smuggling tunnel that runs beneath the border - one of several stunning, standout set pieces on hand.

SICARIO, which is Spanish for “hitman,” is Villeneuve’s most fully realized work. The director’s previous films, including INCENDIES, PRISONERS, and ENEMY were intriguing and fairly solid, but this intensely driven treatise has really seared itself into my psyche in a much more profound way.

Working from a well crafted screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy), Villeneuve keeps us up close with the characters, but knows when to give us distance via striking long shots impeccably filmed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Incidentally, Villeneuve and Deakins have been both tapped to do the long awaited sequel to BLADE RUNNER. Their riveting work here makes me think they could seriously do that project justice.

Justice is what Blunt’s Kate desperately wants here in the murky, immoral terrain that makes up SICARIO, and the actress puts forth a lot of power in both the pulse pounding action moments, and in the edgy confrontations with those she doesn’t trust. People who don’t know the British actress (her American accent here is spot on) by now are really missing out – the woman has mad range.

However, as good as Blunt is, Del Toro steals every scene he’s in, and he does it by barely speaking. His cold yet fascinating presence has us questioning his motives as much as Blunt does, and when he does speak – every word has disturbing weight.

SICARIO may stir memories of such like-minded thrillers such as Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC and Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, but it has something those otherwise fine films were strongly lacking: a real conscience.

More later...

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