Maybe Denis Villeneuve ought to call on his first language being French as an excuse for the script quality of his forays into Hollywood. First there was the overheated, ridiculous revenge picture Prisoners, masquerading as a serious exploration of the repercussions of child abduction, and now he’s taken a repeat course, plunging into the world of shadowy CIA operations and Mexican drug cartels, only to pull back and reveal that the movie didn’t really have important matters on its mind at all. It was just about a cool guy taking out the baddies. The acclaim both have received is slightly mystifying, although in Sicario’s case I’m at least partly along for the ride. This is a superbly directed movie, with several strong performances, and it’s only in the last third that the procedural aspect is revealed as little more than a sop, disguising its decidedly pulpy intent.
I’d read comparisons to Traffic, so I was lulled into thinking Sicario’s early stages were a positive sign, its unwilling to nursemaid its audience and over-explain its content; we share the confusion of the main protagonist. By the end, I was wondering if this might be a case of obfuscation due to embarrassment over how little of the plot really makes sense.
The only real point of reference to Traffic – apart from the drugs trade, obviously – seems to be the entirely superfluous plotline in which Mexican cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) is awoken by his son each morning and asked to come out and play football. Yes, I suppose it’s intended to illustrate how drug trafficking ruins lives and destroys families, but the actual integration is entirely artificial, inserted into a plot that, unlike Traffic, is entirely focussed on those out to bring down the cartel boss. As such, it feels flagrantly cynical, an attempt to persuade that it has the broader (awards-worthy?) substance of Soderbergh’s film.
Sicario is actor Taylor Sheridan’s first screenplay and, to give him credit, he appears to have a good sense of rhythm and structure, offering surprises and twists throughout. The problem is, those faculties aren’t necessarily in service of an internally coherent piece in the final analysis. Emily Blunt’s FBI SWAT team agent Kate Mace is offered an observational role in a unit consisting of Department of Defence flip-flops-wearing Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, revelling in the chance to play a completely self-regarding arsehole) and a Delta Force unit, after discovering an Arizona house filled with walled-up corpses. Having lost several colleagues, she’s keen to bring the perpetrator to justice so agrees to work with them.
Inevitably, the innocent has her eyes opened, and she discovers that the tactics and methods of Graver (actually a CIA officer) and his partner, the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), leave a lot to be desired, most of them being highly illegal. They make an incursion into Mexico, extracting one of cartel boss Manual Díaz’s (Bernardo P Saracino) lieutenants, during the course of which a sterling freeway shootout takes place. As her association with the team continues, she is continually undermined in her attempts to pursue legitimate means of bringing Diaz to justice, including prosecuting him for money laundering and being subjected to an attack by a dirty cop Ted (Jon Bernthal), during which Alejandro intervenes only at the last moment.
The team’s main goal is to set up a situation whereby Díaz reports back to “ghost” drug lord Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cedillo) so they can take him out, and this is where the picture begins to go awry for me. Ostensibly, it appears that the raid on the border tunnel used for drug smuggling is a distraction enabling Alejandro to get across and follow Díaz to his boss (presumably it also provides the CIA with alibi of conducting a legitimate operation), but if so it’s an astonishingly thin plan.
The CIA is going to rely on just one man to go in and assassinate the drug lord? A man for whom circumstances blissfully collide, such that he hitches a ride with the corrupt cop known to Díaz? Added to which, the CIA appears to be following Díaz anyway, via the new Hollywood all-purpose plot device, a drone, since Alejandro is getting constant feedback on Alarcon’s estate and defences. So did they need Alejandro to make like a one-man army at all? I’m sure Sheridan has explanations for these points, but I doubt it will really make them any easier to swallow.
Essentially, this is where the picture drifts from suspension of disbelief into outright contrivance. It wouldn’t have looked so out of place for del Toro to have been straight swapped with Steven Seagal at the point where Alejandro rocks up and shoots all the bad guys. Except for killing the wife and kids, of course, as Seagal would never go that far; I guess we’re supposed to think this gives Alejandro a veneer of the grounding and believability (much the same as de rigueur scenes of waterboarding and cynicism with regards to the activities of ostensibly governmental institutions), but it does nothing of the sort.
The unlikeliness is compounded when we learn Alejandro’s background; he’s not CIA, he’s working for the rival Colombian Medellin Cartel, but even this is a means to an end. He’s out for revenge against Alarcón, who had his wife decapitated and his daughter dumped in an acid bath. Before all this, Alejandro was just a prosecutor in Juárez (now he is the Sicario – the hitman – of the title). Er, okay. So this is revealed as the tale of a lawyer who becomes a kick-ass ninja in order to wreak vengeance on those who finished his family. Suddenly Sicario’s gritty trappings fall around its ears with the revelation that Alejandro is Batman (I’ve seen it suggested that “prosecutor” is a reference to Alejandro’s method of killing, which is just plain silly, although I guess we’ll find out in the sequel, focussing on this vigilante for justice).
Having thoroughly undermined the character and the bedrock of the picture, there are still some decent scenes and moments to be had. Alejandro holding a gun under Kate’s chin, forcing her to sign the report legitimising the CIA operation (the only reasons she was invited along) has a certain potency. And there’s little need to convince the audience that the CIA would be willing to engage in re-introducing a status quo, fostering the continuing drugs trade through a reliable source (the Colombians) rather than one that is out of control; one might argue this is a much too charitable depiction of their essential corruptibility, and that they are really up to their armpits in coke, complicit with its cultivation and supply at every turn in the aid of black budgets (the recently explored subject matter of Kill the Messenger).
Which hastens a further question; if the CIA is so willing to circumvent and ignore every rule in the book to achieve their ends, why would they solicit the company of a straight-shooter like Kate (in the initial conversation, they reject her partner Reggie, The Fades‘ Daniel Kaluuya, for similar reasons). Do they really want to be encountering such problems every time they organise an illicit operation? They’d spend all their time threatening reluctant collaborators. Wouldn’t it be common-sense to either forge the whole thing/keep it off the official record or get someone in who is reliable and malleable, a tried and trusted FBI yes-person? Sure, the Sicario route makes for a dramatic charge, but it undermines the picture’s gritty posturing.
There are other points where the contrivance should have been a warning sign of the gaps in logic to come; Reggie’s best pal, whom Reggie is secretly setting Kate up on a date with, just happens to be a dirty cop out to get the skinny on what she knows on behalf of the cartel? No wonder the scene has caused confusion. It’s not a case of a densely layered picture requiring a repeat visit to glean all its riches; Sicario’s a muddle.
And yet, despite this, there’s much to like in the picture. Blunt may look a little willowy and un-SWAT like, but that works in the favour of the antagonistic, testosterone-charged milieu into which she is thrust. I rather liked that, for a change, the protagonist (well, until you find the makers are more interested in Alejandro) is out of her depth, and doesn’t get to indulge gun-toting justice at every opportunity, even if it beggars belief that someone in her line of work wouldn’t have eyes wide open to the ways and means of other agencies, even if she has no truck with dodgy dealings herself.
Villeneuve’s direction is outstanding. I completely see why he’s been engaged for Blade Runner 2; he and Roger Deakins will certainly ensure it looks fantastic. More worrying, though, is his aforementioned cluelessness with regards to scripts. If his English language track record is any indication, Rick Deckard’s return could be something of a train wreck (which, to be fair, I think most people are expecting anyway).
First-rate set pieces litter the picture, including the raid on the house (although, even I know – from watching movies – that Kate is rubbish at clearing rooms) the gun battle on the freeway, Kate’s altercation with Ted, the night vision tunnel incursion, and – despite intruding from a completely different movie, or at least different to the one I thought this was – Alejandro’s assault on Alarcón’s residence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is every bit as impressive as you’d expect, while Johann Johannsson’s rumbly, oppressive score adds enormously to the mood (I wouldn’t be surprised if he has another Oscar nomination coming his way, although this is hardly the sort of thing you’d sit down and savour with a glass of wine and a good book).
Sicario isn’t nearly as stark, rigorous and uncompromising as you might have been led to expect, so it’s just like Prisoners in that respect. The action is as enervating and slick as in your typical action movie, while its characters and situations are as melodramatic they come. Nevertheless, Villeneuve fully succeeds in lending the picture a pervasively oppressive atmosphere (as he did with Enemy), underpinned by a barren, foreboding landscape. If you approach Sicario as an engaging thriller with about as much insight into the world of cartels as Point Break has into bank robberies, you probably won’t come away too disappointed.