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Sicario

tn_sicarioHere we go yo, here we go yo, so what’s a what’s a what’s a sicario? In Mexico, the onscreen text tells us, it’s a hitman. And the movie SICARIO is a nightmarish portrait of the byzantine conflict such a hitman would be in the middle of. Literally that would be the War On Drugs but metaphorically, it’s easy to think, it could be about the War On Terror, or any number of seemingly intractable cycles of violence. This is, after all, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, ENEMY) making an American movie about Mexico. It’s international and cross-cultural.

Our guide into Hell is Emily Blunt (EDGE OF TOMORROW, LOOPER) as Kate Macer, a new but talented FBI agent who raids a drug house in Phoenix and accidentally finds where a cartel has been stashing bodies. Next thing you know a meeting room full of mysterious higher-ups recruits her to aid in a vaguely defined interagency mission they say will lead her to the people responsible. She finds herself at an Air Force base with a couple dozen macho CIA, Delta Force and US Marshal tough guys who all seem to go way back and know exactly what’s going on and do this kinda mission in their sleep. And next thing you know they’re cruising over the border meeting up with militarized Mexican police forces and God knows who else. Nobody tells Kate anything. She just has to stay quiet and keep up.

There’s a bit of a TRAINING DAY thing here, with the added dimension of being a woman in a male dominated profession. She’s trying to hold her own, make a good show for her gender, her agency and herself, but there’s a constant stomach-sinking feeling that she’s being peer pressured into doing things that she doesn’t believe in. She’s being left out, lied to and betrayed, tricked into going along with illegal activities, used as bureaucratic cover or as bait.

mp_sicarioJosh Brolin (JONAH HEX, W., OLDBOY) as “D.O.D. consultant” Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro (SAVAGES, THE HUNTED) as his enigmatic, cold-blooded “bird-dog” Alejandro are fiercely ambiguous characters. They take glee in intimidating Kate and tormenting their enemies. Alejandro seems to be infamous and feared. He sticks his dick in a guy’s face during an interrogation, his finger in a guy’s ear (that made me wince), they’re non-plussed unimpressed by the horrors they see, uninterested in laws, willing to torture, to kill, to beat up our heroine. But also they get her back at times, save her life, and seem sincerely intent on stopping the murderous cartels. You definitely don’t want to be their friend, but I’m a little less sure if I want them completely out of business.

As much as SICARIO is probly About Something, it’s the surface level pleasures of an intensely cinematic procedural that make it great. That our surrogate is being tossed into deep waters and rarely knows what the hell is going on makes it more harrowing. A churning, industrial sounding score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (PRISONERS, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) taps us in the gut as she rolls with the squadron, riding a caravan of five black SUVs right through the border, meeting up with an army of Mexican cops riding vehicles like War Boys, zipping into the city of Juarez, past a line of naked, decapitated bodies hung from a freeway overpass like executed pirates. Roger Deakins’s matter-of-fact photography of such nightmarish imagery hits some previously unknown intersection between documentary realism and Hieronymous Bosch.

The in-the-thick-of-it-without-having-to-shake-all-over-the-damn-place camerawork reminded me of the opening kidnap sequence from John Hyams’ UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION. Another movie that comes to mind was mentioned by Hyams himself:

 

It feels more real than choreographed, but without being any more visually confusing than it would be if you were there. One particularly tense sequence plays like an ambush in an Iraq or Afghanistan war movie, except it takes place in gridlock on the U.S. side of the border crossing. We’re stuck between the team’s goal of killing their attackers and Kate’s appalled astonishment that they’re having a firefight with unknown assailants in a crowd of civilians. Causing rambunction throughout the sphere.

There’s another big sequence that takes place inside a tunnel built under the border. This is kinda off topic but it reminds me of an article I read about some Canadian drug dealers who built a tunnel under their border. They got caught because the neighbors noticed them doing hard work, which was out of character. The cops watched them for years bringing lumber into their greenhouse and never bringing it out. They let them build the whole thing and use it before busting them transporting pot. They did time here in Seattle and should be out some time around now. Man, they are gonna be pissed when they find out that pot is legal here now.

But yeah, I know, somebody bigger than them had to have funded that thing, and they probly would’ve used it for something more nefarious than just weed. Good guys don’t do a construction project like that, and tunnels built secretly by nefarious forces are an underutilized element in this type of movie. You only got two directions to go and you don’t know what’s gonna be on the other side when you get there. It’s an intense scene.

SICARIO also reminded me quite a bit of ZERO DARK THIRTY, and it’s kinda about the same thing: a very determined and underestimated woman navigating her way through a complex war where laws and morals are blurry, revenge is tempting and nothing seems to be fixable.

Kate is a great character because she’s a badass but not a fantasy. Blunt has tough eyes but a skinny body, she’s not Ronda Rousey. So whenever she fights a man she’s eventually overpowered. The joy is in the ROCKY style victory of knowing she put up a good fight, and sometimes threw the first punch out of principle. And it’s the same way with her head-on collision with a questionable system of justice. In the end by my interpretation they’ve achieved their objective and not a damn thing has changed. But at least she can hold her head high.

Also (SPOILER), points for letting her nice partner survive the movie! And for another small but memorable appearance by Jon Bernthal.

Man, it didn’t take Villaneuve long to rocket up the chart of most interesting working directors. We’re gonna have to keep an eye on this dude.

https://youtu.be/Q6TLWqn82J4

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 19th, 2015 at 8:46 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Sicario”

  1. Really enjoyed this. I referred to it earlier as “100% badass cinema” and stand by that. It wasn’t as challenging a watch as ENEMY but I was no less engaged by the performances and the atmosphere, and my attention was kept tight as a drum throughout. I’ll need to see it again to rectify if I feel it’s in as strong company like you and Hyams put it in. It really reminded me a lot more of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, obviously because of Brolin and Deakins but it also has a similar darkness. I don’t think it’s as definitive about The War on Drugs as Soderbergh did in TRAFFIC but it’s no less damning towards it. Really enjoyed the bit parts from Jeffrey Donovan and Maximiliano Hernández, too.

    How do you feel about all this talk of a sequel, Vern?

  2. I guess I might have to give this Villeneuve dude a chance one of these days. I was just so singularly, actively not interested in the concepts of either of his previous films that I figured “Okay, people are talking about this guy, but he doesn’t seem to make movies I want to see. No harm, no foul. Moving on.” But if we’re talking comparisons to John Hyams and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN here, then that sounds a little up my alley. Which annoys me.

    I hate it when creative types don’t pigeonhole themselves immediately. Makes it harder to dismiss them out of hand.

  3. The Original Paul

    October 19th, 2015 at 10:53 am

    I’m gonna put my reputation on the line here and say that I agree with Vern on about 98% of what he says. SICARIO is really, really good.

    This is my third-favorite Emily Blunt movie, after EDGE OF TOMORROW (d’uh!) and THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. In many respects I think that SICARIO may be equal or superior in quality to those movies – it’s certainly superior in many respects to THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU – but here’s the thing: we don’t have the same problems with drugs, immigration and slave labour over here as you guys do in the USA. I basically live on a big-ass island. That’s not to say that we don’t have problems (oh boy, do we have problems right now!) but they’re very different to the ones you see in SICARIO.

    And even in the very worst areas I could think of, you don’t see bodies being hung from motorway overpasses in the UK. So that’s a good thing, I think. Anyway, my point is that my lack of “connection” with SICARIO had everything to do with its subject matter, nothing to do with its quality. I simply prefer big-concept sci-fi to this kind of movie. And I still really liked it.

    The cast are uniformly excellent in this one. Emily Blunt remains my favorite working actress, but Benicio is so fucking good in this one. Josh Brolin too. So much so that these two almost steal the movie. The cinematography, too, is just brilliant. In fact, can I put this “out there”: in many respects, SICARIO is as much about making a movie as it is about the drug war? There’s a whole narrative being created, in which Emily Blunt’s character finds herself an (often unwilling) viewer. Her whole arc in this movie is about her going from being the best at what she does, to being basically irrelevant to the events going on around her, and her reacting to it. She keeps asking for the plan, but it seems as though it’s really being written and created behind the scenes, only to be played out in front of her. She wants to see behind the scenes, but more and more she realises that she’s only seeing what’s been staged for her and others’ benefits.

    The scoring is excellent too. Reminded me a lot of THE DARK KNIGHT. A lot of Hermann-esque minimalism (and for those of you not familiar with my ideas about movie scores, Hermann is God.) In the most tense scenes, there’s a throbbing heartbeat of a drum, with some other minimalist orchestration, that picks up slowly to a climax. (Also I’ve realised that my favorite action scenes are the ones that have a lot of buildup to a sudden explosive climax. Long drawn-out action doesn’t seem to do it for me nowadays. SICARIO is probably the most perfect example this year of a film that absolutely nails what I find most appealing about action cinema in this respect. No disrespect meant to the likes of FURY ROAD or KINGSMEN, of course.)

    But fans of film-as-a-medium rather than film-as-a-narrative-tool should find a lot to like in SICARIO as well. Some of the cinematography is breathtaking. The scene that stuck out in my mind was when the soldiers went to approach the tunnel entrance at sundown. Both incredibly tense and beautifully shot.

    I’d like to mention the final scene, or Silvio’s story, but I don’t want to go into spoilers that much. I think both are very effective and underscore the points that they’re trying to make extremely well. Let’s just say that neither could be called “optimistic”. But then this isn’t that kind of a film.

    In summary: I approve of SICARIO.

  4. Glad you liked it, Vern… and good call on the TRAINING DAY comparison. Emily Blunt’s character is far from the naif Ethan Hawke was, but it’s still compelling to observe how she responds to the realization that she’s in WAY over her head, with no clean exit in sight. Also, the admonition she receives from Del Toro— “You are not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now” clearly harkens back to Dr. Dre’s “You’re a long way from Starbucks, homie” remark to Hawke.

    Very tight movie, nearly Spartan in terms of dialogue. Gotta see it again, and can’t wait to see what Villeneuve rolls out next.

  5. I’m not sure if I consider it in the same league as the other movies I mentioned, it just reminded me of them. But it is definitely a high quality movie.

    It would be cool if, like PRISONERS, this had almost been made by Lee Daniels but he got fired for wanting Oprah to play the Del Toro character.

  6. How bout my man Del Toro in this one?!

    Run for the border, go get a taco,
    He’ll be wrecking from the jump street,
    meaning from the get go!

    Is it weird to say that he looked better than he has in years? I thought of how you think DiCaprio is slowly turning into Del Toro and in this one I thought that Del Toro is turning into DiCaprio, ha.
    It was also like Zero Dark 30 in that they got their intel from tips, not torture, that was just letting Del Toro have some fun.

  7. Yeah, Del Toro was fantastic in this. (Though I’d say he’s looking more like Brad Pitt than Leo).

    Lionsgate is talking about a sequel centered on Alejandro, and normally I’d say this is the kind of movie that doesn’t need a sequel, but I’m 100% up for that.

  8. I literally just came back from this and I’m still thinking about it but right now I will say 5 things:

    1. The cinematography was quite striking. I haven’t seen dry landscapes and mountains look so majestic on the big screen in quite some time.

    2. As cathartic as the ending to Blunt’s arc is with that lot to balcony stare down I also love it because of how realistic it was. What can she really do? somethings just are and always will be. Shit the confrontation at the dinner table was also a nice dose of realism. Very visceral stuff but appropriate as hell considering the subject matter.

    3. The post-bar scene was one of the most suspenseful I could recall in quite some time. Great job especially by Blunt there.

    4. The very end of the movie is a punch to the gut but again so damn appropriate cause that’s really what people in Mexico are dealing with today to the point where they’re just numb to all the chaos around them and just respond nonchalantly. What can they do but carry on with their day?

    5. The TERMINATOR-esque music was so damn appropriate.

  9. Oh and yes BDT’s Alejandro is quite the memorable badass. I hope those rumors of an Alejandro focused follow up pan out.

  10. Man, I haven’t seen that video in 20 years. My favorite part of “Scenario” is how Busta just casually drops a “motherfucker” in there at the end. Here are these guys, they make a whole album with no cursing on it, to make a point. “Scenario” is the last song. They get through all these verses, and then they let Busta ruin it in the last five seconds. I love it. Because 1. The point they were making was that try didn’t have to curse to be dope, not that they have a problem with cursing, and 2. How you gonna censor Busta? You can’t do it.

    It also kind of reminded me of Vern’s LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD review where he kept the profanity to PG-13 levels the whole time but then dropped in a MOTHERFUCKER right at the end for purposes of realness.

  11. Bust a nut inside your eye. To show you where I come from.

  12. The Original Paul

    October 20th, 2015 at 1:39 am

    Broddie – to quote another frequent commentor here, I agree with you so much that it’s scary. Especially about the final scene. And honestly, how else could they have ended it?

  13. The Original Paul

    October 20th, 2015 at 1:47 am

    Oh, and SICARIO was way better than ZERO DARK THIRTY, which always came across as very “Hollywood-real” to me. I thought the conclusion of ZDT was fantastic, but a lot of what led up to it was… less than convincing. SICARIO did not have that problem. I thought it was better-scripted, and overall better-made than ZDT (there were no moments that I could recall in ZDT that were anywhere as well-directed as the nighttime desert walk or the border confrontation from SICARIO). From the point of view of somebody who knows basically nothing about spec ops or the drug war, SICARIO convinced me that the story it was telling at least could plausibly have occurred in the real world. ZDT, for all it was based on real events, did not manage to convince me that some of its characters or a lot of what happened in it were “real”.

  14. The Original Paul

    October 20th, 2015 at 4:52 am

    And talking of which, I really want to see what Mouth makes of the military parts of this one.

  15. “From the point of view of someone who knows basically nothing about special ops or the drug war”…..well, that just basically clarifies a lot of things about the above post.

    And considering how fundamentally Mouth seemed to completely misunderstand vast portions of ZERO DARK THIRTY (Seal Team 6 were portrayed as “just some bunch of grunts hanging around the border who get handed the mission”? Uh, no), I also find myself interested to see what he makes of this.

  16. The Original Paul

    October 20th, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    “well, that just basically clarifies a lot of things about the above post.”

    Erm… ok? What, exactly? Don’t think I said anything particularly controvertial in that post? I’m not quite sure whether you think ZDT is more believable than I stated (in which case we’re going to have to agree to disagree, because that film had way too much Hollywood bullshit in it to be believable, and I think I’ve justified exactly why I think that is in the ZDT thread), or that SICARIO is less so (which may very well be the case for someone who knows more about the issues involved than I do, but you haven’t stated exactly what you think I’ve got wrong?)

  17. The Original Paul

    October 20th, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    And for the record, here are my original criticisms of ZDT (leaving aside the bits that I thought worked, which was a lot of it, especially the death of OBL at the end, which went a long way to excusing the rest of the movie’s flaws for me):

    “1) When Chastain practically blackmails her asshole bureaucrat boss into giving her “assets” to go on an operation that he deems highly speculative at best. All I can say is that if this is really the state of working relations within the CIA, it’s no bloody wonder it took them ten years to find one man. Absolutely ridiculous.

    2) The moment that Chastain’s friend is killed and Chastain’s reaction is (cue intense stare): “I’m gonna find Osama. And I’m gonna kill him.” Thanks, movie, for clearing up that finding the world’s most wanted terrorist isn’t motivation enough for this woman-against-the-world; what she REALLY needs to spur her into doing her job is a dead friend or two. Glad we cleared that one up!

    And 3) Guy listening to iPod on the way to killing Osama Bin Laden. Erm… riiiiiiiiight.

    See I have almost no knowledge of military procedures, but I’ve read books on the SAS. I’ve seen dramas like “Ultimate Force”. Heck, I’ve read everything Tom Clancy had written (up to about “The Bear and the Rabbit”. I think I gave up on him at that point.) And one thing that instantly came to mind when I was watching the iPod scene is a description, in one of the books I read, of how the British SAS prepare for excursions behind enemy lines. One of the things they do is, they pack EVERYTHING in exactly its right place, weighing it to the gram. (This is fifty or sixty kilos of equipment.) They do this so that they can get to anything they need – nav stuff, comms stuff, etc – under fire if necessary. They get rid of anything the enemy could use for information apart from their ID tags – so no mobile phones, etc, only encrypted military comms units.

    So the SAS do all of that, and yet this American crack military team are bringing along fucking iPods? Seriously?”

    And…

    “But honestly, even if I’d gone into it in a completely open frame of mind – as I tried to do, although honestly I don’t think I succeeded, I’d just heard too much stuff about it – I would still have had some pretty major problems with the main character’s “arc”. At times the movie went WAY too far into “one woman against the system” territory, which is a gigantic movie cliche that absolutely does not work in this type of film.”

    And…

    “…the London bombing footage that’s used in “ZD30”. Its only function, apart from pure exposition, is to lead into a bizarre scene where a CIA boss gives a yelled “Do your jobs! People are dying!” speech. (While not actually offering them any information / help. Just yelling at them. Presumably going for the “Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross” Oscar nomination. That’s the only reason I can think they’d put this totally implausible scene into the movie instead of relying on the strengths of the actors to convey desperation / weariness.)”

    And…

    “I get the feeling that this is one of those movies that time will not be kind to. The kind that gets lots of critical plaudits early on, but when people look back on it, they’ll say: “Well it was kinda dumb, and did you believe that Maya character for one second?” It’ll be popular for as long as its subject matter is considered controversial, but then it’ll be justly forgotten as a well-made but ultimately failed attempt to dramatise a huge moment in history. In short – I didn’t hate it, I thought it was largely well-made, but I didn’t think there was much substance to it, and it doesn’t hold a candle to “Argo”. Or “Thirteen Days”, which is a far, far superior film that tries and succeeds in doing something that ZD30 fails at – dramatically reconstructing a major historical event using a “realistic” tone, and making it believable.”

    Yeah… I could not get fully “into” SICARIO as much as I might have wanted to – because I do think it’s an excellent film on many levels – but if you’re saying that I’m wrong to claim that it’s better than ZERO DARK THIRTY, then that to me is one hell of a claim, and it’s one that I’d like to see justified. I maintain that ZDT is a good film, despite its flaws. But I also think that SICARIO has better cinematography, scoring, character portrayal, narrative development, and ultimately has a lot more to say than ZDT did. Maybe this is because SICARIO is not constrained by trying to be a “real” account about real events; but it also doesn’t rely heavily on Hollywood cliches either, whereas ZDT absolutely does, to its detriment.

  18. AnimalRamirez1976

    October 21st, 2015 at 6:49 am

    This is a film that is great on many levels. The photography is amazing. I guarantee del Toro is going to get an Oscar nomination for this. I definitely got the feeling that someone did their research about how this shit really goes down. But like Paul points out, it “feels” authentic; I haven’t any idea if it is. All the ingredients are here for an amazing film, a classic film.

    But yet… But yet…

    This film has not stuck with me in the week since I saw it. I remember it fine, but emotionally it has not left a big impression. Not outrage. Not astonishment. Nothing. Which is odd because it certainly depicts many outrageous and astonishing things. I find it fitting that the comments here have compared it to ZDT and Traffic. Like them, I suspect it will get a lot of positive buzz for a while, then sink from public consciousness. I don’t think they’re going to be showing this film on TNT or FX five, ten years from now.

    I’ve also seen comparisons to No Country and Apocalypse Now, but I don’t think it reaches that level of classic-ness. It’s just a pretty good movie.

    So why is that? Honestly, I think Sicario would have benefited from a little more “Hollywood”-ization. Yes, maybe that defeats the point, but it might make for a better movie. All the characters are ciphers, including Blunt’s. Probably the most humanized character is the corrupt Mexican policeman and his family. Showing a little of his perspective was definitely the most imaginative part of the movie. No Country and Apocalypse had outrageous characters and a sense of humor. Nothing like that here. Coppola revels in his dramatic, surreal imagery. The surreal images here (the hanging bodies, Blunt and some other dude [that’s never a good sign if I can’t remember] watching the fire fights in Juarez like a fireworks display) are depicted very matter-of-factly.

    This is definitely a trend I see developing in the last few years: telling a bizarre story in the most procedural, “just-the-facts, Ma’am” way possible. FOX CATCHER is another recent example. Yes, there is integrity in this approach, it is valid, and you can make a good movie this way, but maybe it imposes a low ceiling on how good the movie can actually be? FOX CATCHER and ZDT were based on real events, but SICARIO didn’t have any such restrictions.

    So

  19. The Original Paul

    October 21st, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Animal – I agree with you on everything, including a lack of emotional “investment”. But I put it down to, in my case, my own lack of interest in the particular subject matter that it portrays rather than to any failure of the film. I might be wrong in that respect though.

  20. The Original Paul

    October 21st, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Ok, not this:

    “All the characters are ciphers, including Blunt’s.”

    I don’t think this is the case; rather, the information on what actually drives the characters, their motivations, is given very sparingly indeed. But maybe that amounts to the same thing. We know so little about Del Toro’s character in particular that it’s a bit hard to get “invested” in him.

  21. Remember feeling my heart literally starting to race during the fight between Blunt/Berenthal. So rare that films are able to stir that level of raw visceral tension. Was also hangin off the edge of my seat during the border traffic jam shootout.

  22. Amazing film. Best use of night vision since Silence of the Lambs. BDT was amazing. Loved it.

  23. Someone on AV Club said this was a better season 2 of TRUE DETECTIVE than the actual show was. It’s not even the same format, but I completely agree with that thinking.

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