“Sicario” means hit man in Spanish. It’s perfect for this lean, brutal drug war epic. Combining relentless action with the story of a woman confronting a corrupted system, it hits with the staggering energy of a visceral kick in the guts — causing a sensory recoil in every scene.
From the start we’re entering a borderland heart of darkness. Phoenix FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads an armored hostage-rescue squad surging into a drug cartel’s safe house. The raid triggers a frenetic firefight with gunmen from the blood-bathed city of Juarez, Mexico, but that shootout is only the prelude. Her team discovers the hostages behind plasterboard walls, dozens of butchered corpses sealed in plastic cling wrap. If you expect the shockwaves to end there, you’re too trusting.
When the opening’s high-testosterone violence ends its final lap, Macer showers, a drizzle of blood running from her scalp down her stunned face. Filmgoers dazed by director Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant, insidious film may feel the need to cleanse themselves as well. “Sicario” is the latest step in Villeneuve’s dramatic ascent following the kidnap thriller “Prisoners.” It echoes themes from “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket,” weaving them into a heart-pounding meditation on the madness of war.
This is unmistakably a report from the front line of a dirty battle, a kinetic tapestry of brutality and lost morals and power corrupting.
“Sicario” showcases three raw, honest performances in an escalating battle of control and morality. Blunt’s Agent Macer is intrepid and strong-willed, but frustrated after being pressured to volunteer for a secretive task force. Blunt has the most challenging character of her career as the audience’s proxy. She’s frustrated and disoriented from the film’s opening acts, struggling to follow the baffling rules of engagement for this endless turf war. That doesn’t make the intrepid lead character weak, it makes her human.
Macer is recruited off the books by Matt (Josh Brolin), a charismatic, ruthless good ol’ boy agent and his tight-lipped, impassive South American adviser Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The mysterious agents claim their force was formed to “shake the tree and create chaos” against the Sonora Cartel leader behind the Arizona massacre. They claim to be security contractors representing the Department of Defense, and to want her for an operation in El Paso, none of it factual.
Before she can ask what’s next, Macer is drawn into an extradition raid into Mexico, driving beneath bridges the cartel has draped with beheaded cadavers. The ride back becomes a manhunt on wheels that leaves the screaming-fast chases of the “Fast and Furious” movies in the dust.
If battling an enemy as merciless as this means a police force slides into wrongdoing itself, what does that matter? The strategy of counterattack says legal and territorial boundaries don’t apply. Nor does truth. Macer’s handlers tell her as little as Taylor Sheridan’s taut screenplay reveals to us at first. The loose narrative structure is designed to keep us on edge. “You’re asking me how a watch works,” Alejandro tells her. “For now, just keep an eye on the time.”
“Sicario” ticks like a time bomb. The undercover activity moves ever deeper into murderous territory as Macer’s mission grows more brutal and sinister than she ever imagined.
Rarely do you see a crime film with monumentality like this, a drug-trade saga with a very dreamlike horror bred in its bones. The music by Johann Johannsson triggers anxiety through each step deeper into the inferno, while the elegant, beautifully calibrated visual imagery from Roger Deakins locks every character in an existential prison. A stunning sequence that puts the U.S. squad running across the cartel’s darkened underground shafts, viewing the combat zone with green night vision eyewear or gray heat-sensing goggles, is frightening beyond description.
From its shattering opening scene to its stunning conclusion, “Sicario” is a devastating sociopolitical horror show, a dramatic rock slide designed to stun even seen-it-all moviegoers. Villeneuve has earned his next assignment, filming the sequel to the classic “Blade Runner.” He could film a chewing gum commercial that would give you nightmares.
Rated R | Time: 2:01