Friday 23 October 2015

Sicario is a slickly entertaining thriller but is undermined by a clumsy revenge plot and one-dimensional characters

No '5 For Friday' this week. Have a review instead...

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Running time: 121mins
A caption at the start of the film tells us "In Mexico, Sicario means hitman". By the end, I was wondering what Mexico's equivalent of ‘less than the sum of its parts’ might be. Yes, Sicario has an awful lot going for it – lead Emily Blunt is excellent, the direction crisp, the pace breathless, the score suitably industrial and foreboding, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is never less than sumptuous. But, for all that, Denis Villeneuve’s drug war thriller is a frustrating piece of work that certainly has its moments but ultimately isn’t half as sophisticated as it thinks it is or needs to be. In fact, Sicario is surprisingly by-the-numbers, with thin characters (despite the efforts of a fine cast), a simplistic plot and a clumsily administered twist.

The versatile Blunt (Into The Woods, Edge Of Tomorrow) plays Kate Macer, a by-the-book FBI agent fighting a losing battle against powerful and ruthless drug cartels on the US/Mexico border. She is recruited into a special taskforce headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a cocky and evasive spook who struts around in flip-flops like he’s fresh off the beach. The gung-ho team’s aim, as Graver has it, is to “shake the tree” enough to flush out the cartel’s Mr Big so he can be captured, his operation destroyed. Kate doesn’t trust the taskforce’s motives from day one, an attitude proved entirely correct by the highly illegal tactics they employ and the arrival of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former prosecutor turned mysterious, enigmatic badass with a big secret.

Sicario is at its best early on. The opening raid on one of the cartel’s desert safe houses is probably the movie’s finest scene – action-packed, horrifying and climaxed by an explosive exclamation mark that punches you right in the guts. Almost as effective is a sequence after the taskforce has travelled into Mexico to extract a senior cartel member from prison. On the way back through the border into the States, Graver and Co’s convoy gets stuck in traffic and they quickly realise they are about to come under attack by cartel members in other vehicles. It’s a beautifully staged scene, rich in suspense and paranoia. Blunt is at her best here, too; a perfect study in confusion, fear and fury as she starts to realise the true magnitude of the madness she has naively volunteered to be a part of.

The film’s problems begin soon enough though. You quickly realise this isn’t going to be a story about a brave young FBI agent overcoming enormous obstacles to earn her stripes but yet another of those ‘necessary monsters’ tales, perhaps done best recently in US TV shows such as The Shield and True Detective. In fact, Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle from the latter drama’s first season sums up this trope perfectly when he says: “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” And that’s pretty much what we have here – Graver and Alejandro are the bad men, the only real defence against the cartels’ utter unflinching ruthlessness. No rules and laws can apply to them because to restrict these “bad men” in any way would be to hand their enemies a crucial advantage. The only way to win is to give them carte blanche to deceive, to threaten and to kill. “You are not a wolf and this is a land of wolves now,” Del Toro tells Blunt, somehow keeping a straight face amidst the tsunami of ridiculous macho bullshit. I’m not saying Sicario is sexist or misogynist (the fact the only woman in the entire film is shown to lack the required grit to properly compete in this ‘land of wolves’ speaks more to her humanity than to her gender), just that the film's descent into a fairly unremarkable revenge story, full of absurd testosterone-fuelled confrontations and simplistic solutions (killing the bad men who aren’t on our side), critically undermines what was a promising set-up. 

Blunt’s role in Sicario is a strange one. On the one hand, she’s supposedly the lead character; on the other she’s almost peripheral to the plot as Graver and Alejandro go about practising their dark arts and refusing to reveal their real intentions or ultimate goal. The film’s revenge story isn’t even her revenge story. The fact that, despite all that, Blunt is the film’s only truly believable or empathetic character says a lot about her ability as an actor and the flimsiness of the writing elsewhere. I often think the mark of a successful fictional character is one whose life you can imagine away from the story in which you first encounter them. It’s easy to conjure images of Kate Macer as a mother, daughter, lover, friend or neighbour, impossible to do likewise with one-dimensional ciphers like those Brolin and Del Toro do their best to portray.  

My other problem with Sicario is that I’ve seen a couple of other films recently about the Mexican drug cartels that handle the subject matter rather better. Amat Escalante’s 2013 film Heli is a work truly deserving of the word visceral (a term many critics have used to describe Villeneuve's movie). The titular character is a young Mexican whose family is targeted by a local cartel after his 12-year-old sister and her older boyfriend conceal stolen packages of cocaine. When the crime is discovered the revenge perpetrated upon these kids is terrible to behold (torture, rape and murder), and stands in stark contrast to Sicario’s rather clumsily inserted subplot about a Mexican policeman similarly in over his head. Escalante’s film shows how the cartels’ mephitic presence seeps into every area of their victims’ lives and the ways in which it foments hatred and criminality. If you want to see a drug war story with vengeance at the centre of its jet-black heart, it’s really Heli that you should be checking out.

Better still is Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman’s documentary about two vigilante gangs – one in Mexico, the other in the US – that have organised to fight back against the cartels. The American group are Fox News-addicted halfwits for the most part, driving around the desert in a tiny convoy trying to find newly-arrived illegal immigrants like characters in one of Donald Trump’s wet dreams. Far more intriguing are Mexico’s Autodefensas, a veritable army operating successfully in the Mexican state of Michoacán and led by small-town physician, Dr Jose Mireles. ‘El Doctor’ is a fearless but flawed man; a serial philanderer not afraid to order his foot soldiers to put their cartel enemies “in the ground”. You could go as far as to call him a “bad man who keeps other bad men from the door” but, here’s the thing, unlike Alejandro or Graver he is a multi-faceted real person rather than a jumble of character traits straight out of a ‘How to Create a Brusque Tough Guy’ screenwriting class. Sicario’s biggest fault, then, is one it can do precious little about – the reality of the drug war is far more interesting, disturbing and complex than any movie drama (however slick its direction, however accomplished its actors) could ever hope to match.

Cartel Land goes on to show the connections between the vigilantes, the authorities and the cartels and how, ultimately, it becomes difficult to tell them apart so interdependent are they. The cartels’ tentacles are long, their influence pernicious and pervasive. They certainly can’t be beaten by a brooding antihero with a tragic backstory and a hard-on for guns. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is stronger too.

Rating: WW


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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