‘Sicario’ Film Review: Idealistic FBI Agent Becomes Pawn in Jaded CIA–Mexican Drug War
ISIS beheadings, Mexican cartel beheadings—it’s pretty much the same deal. Parallels between the two evil institutions abound.
Well, as the cartels down there maintain, the drug trade is just supply for the demand up here; we’ve got unprecedented levels of rural and small-town heroin addiction. New England is riddled with it. There’s an enormous market for pills and powders and herbs that make our great American spiritual depression cease and desist for a short while. Hence the cartel feeding frenzy.
“Sicario” is a well-told tale of one attempt to stem the tide of drugs and violence pouring in here from down there. Ultimately, complete drug-flow stoppage won’t happen via CIA, FBI, and paramilitary teams, but through 12-step addiction programs and personal and spiritual cultivation. But that’s a different movie.
Still, it’s interesting to pick up the drug war rock and see what’s crawling around under it. That’s exactly what “Sicario” does. “Sicario” is Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” on steroids. It’s got some disturbing imagery you won’t be able to unsee; it’s full of very bad hombres. And the “good guys,” well, the cynicism level of the CIA is like hydrochloric acid. But it’s a dude film; dudes will appreciate it. And the cast is killer.
And That British Chick Is Pretty Great
Emily Blunt, that is. As door-kicker No. 1 on an FBI bust, agent Kate Macer (Blunt) roll-ducks a shotgun blast and puts the shooter down, whereupon her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) discovers a plastic bag peeking through the shotgunned hole in the drywall behind her.
Guess what’s hiding in there? It’s a stunningly high body-count drywall morgue in a suburban Arizona house. The octopus-like arms of the cartels have grown long.
Macer’s a no-nonsense, by-the-book, morally upright FBI field agent whose ringing idealism puts her squarely in the function of stand-in for the audience.
Emily Blunt got this role because of her immensely believable, perfect-American-accented macho warrior work with Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” where her soulful blue eyes, power jawline and cleft chin, and the fact that she was heretofore a Shakespearean kind of girly-girl, gave her a magnetic je ne sais quoi.
Interviews ensue in the wake of the Arizona mayhem. They like Kate’s style. Who does? We’re not sure, but it looks like a fantasy football interagency task force of alpha-dog operators is being cherry-picked to follow up on the drywall morgue situation. Macer’s the best kidnapping specialist. But is that really why they want her on the team?
The main auditioner is one Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a rules-and-formalities eschewing, beach-sandals-wearing, gum-snapping bro with perfect hair and a killer smile. He’s a “Defense Department contractor” (sure he is). Talk about your snake and lady-charmer. Brolin was born to play this kind of slick, boyishly charming manly-man.
Macer is expertly schmoozed, bamboozled, and flattered into believing she’s needed on this op because she’s so awesome. She’s still naively seeing bad guys versus law enforcement as black-and-white, but Graver is clearly very, very gray. We highly suspect her idealism is in for a rude awakening.
Right about now, someone who might be the titular “sicario” shows up. That would be Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). “Sicario” is Spanish slang for hitman. But Alejandro claims to be a “former Mexican prosecutor” (sure he is). Whoever he is, he carries deadly gravitas.
Eventually, the crack agent team (no pun intended) travels down to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to snare one minor cartel boss (linked to the Arizona incident), in order to smoke out an even bigger one. Juárez—you don’t want to go there. Nightmarish images hang off bridges in those parts.
Which brings us to a topnotch set piece: Once they collar the small-fry boss and start heading back across the border (accompanied by a substantial motorcade of Federales), a massive traffic jam sets like cement; the Americans are suddenly sitting ducks.
Cars are spotted, inching forward, packed to the gills with face-tattooed bad hombres packing military-grade hardware. Unfortunately for los hombres, the American convoy contains U.S. Army Delta Force operators, tier-one CIA field-spooks, and one tough FBI chick. Which is like putting a feral dog pack up against dogfight-trained pit bulls. The tension winds tight as a steel winch—dudes will enjoy the ensuing spec ops versus cartel henchmen smackdown.
There are tunnels, illegals, and shady deals, with Macer running around trying to figure it all out, and grinning Graver acting like a camp counselor: “Stick around, learn something.”
And as the film throttles up, mystery man Alejandro’s story takes center stage. He’s an independent operative looking for revenge. The CIA benefits from turning him loose, since (to continue the canine metaphors) he’s a bloodhound crossed with a pit bull, looking to settle a score. With whom, we’re not sure, but you can bet it’s someone the CIA wants dead.
Always unpredictable and unnerving, Del Toro’s Alejandro is riveting and complex. He shows us the humanity in the predator, the nightmares haunting his sleep, and the tenderness for the vulnerable female agent who reminds him of someone very close, taken away too soon.
Wolves, Not Dogs
The ominous statement by Alejandro is that the world has become a place where only wolves can survive. The cartels are the wolves; the government operators who used to be sheepdogs are now also often wolves. And the wolves take advantage of the chickens.
The quicker the chickens stop pecking at the cartel chicken feed, the quicker the drug war wolves become a non-issue. Just say no. That’ll help (sure it will). But seriously, when it comes to war—Vietnam War, drug war, whatever (war is war)—the last monologue of “Platoon” says it best: “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.”
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Release date: Oct. 2 (Limited: Sept. 18)
3.5 stars out of 5