‘Sicario’ Movie Review: Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro Give Great Performances

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Action thriller ‘Sicario’ is a must-see knockout.

In the superb drug thriller “Sicario,” a rugged FBI field agent (Emily Blunt) asks her new boss (Josh Brolin) what exactly his plans are as he convenes a task force of several federal agencies to take on Mexican drug lords.NEW YORK — Emily Blunt has been a sci-fi warrior (Edge of Tomorrow) and gun-toting mother (Looper), but Sicario director Denis Villeneuve wasn’t looking for an action heroine when he cast her as FBI. Instead, it was her regal turn as a 19th-century British queen in The Young Victoria that landed her the drug-cartel drama (opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands nationwide Oct. 2). “It struck me as strange, for him to see past the bonnet and see an FBI agent,” says Blunt, 32, sitting in the dingy back office of an Upper West Side movie theater with her co-star Benicio Del Toro. “I was thrilled that he did, but I was quite surprised he thought that film would be the link to this one.” Although Villeneuve had seen her before in The Devil Wears Prada and other movies, “she showed a mixture of vulnerability and innocence” in Victoria, he says. “At the same time, there was an inner strength and drive I was looking for.” (Spanish slang for “hitman”) spirals downward with idealistic agent Kate Macer (Blunt), whose principles are tested when she’s recruited for a black-ops mission on the U.S.

A Canadian filmmaker equally comfortable in French and English, he is especially interested in preludes and aftermaths, in the tense moments before the eruption of violence and in the shock and confusion that follow. His framing, cutting and sound design evoke the feelings that motivate and arise from the shedding of blood: rage, grief, steely resolve and wild panic. Kate (Blunt), who busts down doors in Arizona for the FBI, is casually recruited by Brolin’s Matt, a “DoD adviser,” which is what you call yourself when you’re CIA.

Having portrayed both sides of the law in drug thrillers such as Escobar: Paradise Lost and Traffic (for which he won a supporting actor Oscar in 2001), “Alejandro was a little different to me, because his motivation is revenge,” says Del Toro, 48, reuniting with Blunt after 2010’s The Wolfman. Villeneuve’s 2009 feature, “Polytechnique,” was the almost unbearably meticulous reconstruction of an actual mass shooting at a Montreal university. A mission in “the El Paso area” turns out to mean a sojourn to Mexico to kidnap the brother of a drug lord so he can be tortured into giving up the location of a secret tunnel across the border. He followed it with “Incendies,” a grim family chronicle set mainly in a thinly fictionalized Lebanon during that country’s long civil war. “Sicario,” his new movie, visits a different war zone: the United States-Mexico border, where the murderous business practices of the Mexican drug cartels threaten to bleed across the Rio Grande. Matt’s top aide (Benicio del Toro) describes himself as a former Mexican prosecutor who also has ties to Medellín, Colombia. “Nothing will make sense to your American eyes, and you will doubt everything we do,” he advises her. “But in the end, you will understand.” Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson combine to make the action scenes gorgeous, scary and exciting, while the script by Taylor Sheridan is mordant and smart, with not a wasted word.

When the script was shopped around, some financiers offered to up the budget if first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan changed the gender of Blunt’s character to a man, which “would’ve been a weird or just boring dynamic,” Blunt says. “We’ve seen that film before.” “It’s almost exotic nowadays to have a main character that is female. It’s unfortunate that Blunt’s character — by-the-books, married to her job — is underdeveloped, but she is such a determined presence that you may not notice.

That, for me, says something — it should not be like that,” Villeneuve says. “I love to explore the reality of a woman: their struggles with power and their place in the world.” In Sicario, “it was important to feel that her character is a stranger among others. But the desert and the drug war — a landscape evoking old westerns populated with a new cast of outlaws and would-be sheriffs — has also become fertile pop-cultural ground.

Great as she is, though, Del Toro, coiled as a cobra, is even better, while Brolin — merry and lethal, a warrior in flipflops — is my favorite of the lot. “Sicario” (“hit man” in Spanish) is like a fixed-up version of 2013’s “The Counselor,” a film with both merits and flaws galore, and it, like “Traffic” and “Chinatown,” elegantly carries the grim burden of knowing that in its world there is no triumph, no solution, no redemption. The fact that she works in the FBI, but is a woman in a man’s world.” In preparation, Blunt did tactical training with Delta Force soldiers and DEA agents in New Mexico, where Sicario shot last summer, learning how to carry and fire a gun and skulk around the desert for the film’s drug-raid sequences. We know the territory, thematic and geographic, from “No Country for Old Men” and “Breaking Bad,” from “The Counselor” and “Traffic” and even “Weeds.” Mr. Villeneuve, aided by Taylor Sheridan’s lean script, Roger Deakins’s parched cinematography and Johann Johannsson’s slow-moving heart attack of a score, respects the imperatives of genre while trying to avoid the usual clichés. But he’s also trying to scramble some of the usual codes, and to paint a morally complicated picture instead of restaging a morality play. “Sicario” tells the story of an ambitious operation undertaken by an alphabet soup of American law enforcement agencies against top-ranking members of the Sonora cartel.

She was like, ‘I didn’t want to be creepy, but I watch The Office,’ which was funny.” (Blunt’s husband, John Krasinski, starred on the NBC workplace sitcom for nine seasons.) Blunt signed on to the bleak drama just five weeks after giving birth to their daughter, Hazel, and initially feared “that it was going to be a little more than I bargained for,” she says. I know it looks like a very intense shoot and the subject matter is very dark, but it was a really lovely experience.” Plus, Hazel (now 19 months old) “was so perfect and pink,” Blunt smiles. “It was impossible to come home and bring the darkness with me, you know? She was so cute.” Next up, Blunt stars opposite Charlize Theron and Jessica Chastain in Snow White prequel The Huntsman, out next spring, and shoots the highly anticipated adaptation of best seller The Girl on the Train later this fall.

She and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), are SWAT-team specialists who, in the movie’s first scene, raid a house whose walls are filled with corpses, anonymous victims of the cartel who died horrible deaths before being sealed between layers of drywall. Del Toro, meanwhile, starts filming the unnamed Star Wars Episode VIII with Looper director Rian Johnson early next year (but neither confirms nor denies that he plays a villain). While Sicario doesn’t have the built-in audience of those films, they hope movies about the war on drugs will continue to get made. “It’s good to do anything you can to bring awareness to it, because I don’t think it’s talked about on the news hardly at all. Are flip-flops part of the uniform?) Matt is all smiles, treating possibly extralegal combat missions like pickup basketball games and answering Kate’s earnest inquiries with mock-sheepish good humor.

Kate and Reggie are appalled to discover that their new assignment is being carried out with almost complete disregard for national sovereignty, the rule of law or basic human decency. As Alejandro suggests late in the film, there are no good guys and bad guys in this world, only packs of wolves competing for territory and dominance. “Sicario” suggests that United States government authorities are one such pack, acting not in the name of justice or security but rather of expediency and order.

Recent Mexican films — including fictional features like Amat Escalante’s “Heli” and a number of brave and powerful documentaries — have examined how the drug trade and the power of the cartels have affected all aspects of life there. A subplot in “Sicario” concerning a Sonoran police officer and his family gestures in that direction, yet the film stays mostly in shallow action-thriller waters.

Blunt is impressively glum and intense, but Kate is a bit of a blank, on hand as a filter through which the audience can scrutinize Matt and Alejandro, who are far more intriguing characters. We glimpse mutilated bodies hanging from bridges, hear stabbings and shootings just out of sight and study the face of a man whose family is being killed in front of him. But after a while these sounds and images start to feel like expressions of technique, and they become at once numbing and sensational, and instead of a movie about violence we’re watching another violent movie, after all.

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