Sometimes you find yourself prowling a bar, a club, a restaurant, hell, even a movie theater lobby with a hunger or thirst, unsure what — if anything — can get at it. Even if the action thriller Sicario delivers only a temporary fix, at least it’s a tense, grabby, nasty, violent one. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Enemies), written by actor-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy), and starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro, the movie’s knowhow is impressive and its politics are spot on.
We’re living in a world in which the tactics of endless war in the Middle East have infected the tactics of endless war on homeland terror. No one’s fully up to speed, no one’s told the end game and, in Sicario, it’s just hunt, track, point and shoot at Mexican drug cartel bosses and suppliers, get out alive, and let God sort out the rest. Blunt is an intriguing combo of blue steel and vulnerability as a straight-shooting, naïve and out-of-her-league FBI agent who finds herself sought after by higher-ups for a huge new assignment when her role in a kidnap raid on a Phoenix -adjacent drug cartel safe house unleashes a media frenzy and calls for decisive action.
Assigned to gather intelligence, she’s paired with a defense department boss Brolin (terrific as a smug snake with a cowboy swagger) and ex-prosecutor Del Toro (blank, haunted, and also great) and she slowly learns that her new targets aren’t only cartel bosses and drug dealers. She’s thrown like a grenade into the firestorm of an ultra violent, dirty and secret war. For a director as skilled as Villeneuve, Sicario — even with its fractured, splintery structure and sprawl — is pretty much straight ahead genre stuff. It doesn’t have the overarching ambitions of, say, Traffic but don’t sell it short. This is lean, armchair-gripping, paranoid, even early Michael Mann-esque moviemaking, burnished by crack cinematography from Roger Deakins and terrific performances.