Sometimes a movie is less than the sum of its parts.
“Sicario” (which we learn right off the bat is Spanish slang for “hitman”) boasts exceptional acting performances, inspired direction, and stunning cinematography. The problem is none of it amounts to anything particularly interesting or insightful.
But first let’s focus on the positives, of which there are many.
Emily Blunt plays FBI Agent Kate Macer, a driven woman who spends a lot of her time mopping up the grim work of Mexican drug cartels inside the United States. She is given the opportunity to join an elite government task force set at striking at the heart of the cartels.
The task force is led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Their actions are purposefully vague and Kate spends a good chunk of the movie figuring out what exactly is going on and why she is even there.
There is an exciting raid to pull a prisoner out of Juarez and another impressive action set piece inside a tunnel underneath the U.S./Mexico border, but when the dust settles, “Sicario” reveals itself to be disappointingly conventional.
The movie was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who is known for thrillers like “Prisoners” and “Incendies.” Villeneuve is a gifted, atmospheric director and he pumps this movie full of dread and tension, but it is more than the workmanlike script by Taylor Sheridan can support.
The cinematography feeds into this vibe with some stunning imagery of the borderland countryside by the great Roger Deakins. It is award-worthy work.
And speaking of awards, you’ll likely see Brolin, Blunt, and Del Toro on several nominations lists at the end of the year.
Brolin settles into the part of the cocky, evasive Matt Graver like a comfortable pair of shoes. He helps lighten this weighty movie with his slick charm.
Blunt is fantastic as the young, idealistic law woman who finds herself facing the confounding shades of gray in the criminal underworld. Much is being made about the fact Blunt is excelling in a part that typically would have gone to a man, but she makes this role her own to the point it is hard to imagine anyone else of any gender in it.
The reality, though, is this is Del Toro’s movie. The screen crackles to life every time he is on it and since he knows the audience can never be sure if his world-weary Alejandro is a hero or a villain, he somehow manages to play both sides simultaneously. It is some really great stuff.
It’s not that I think “Sicario” is a bad movie, far from it; it’s just with so much terrific work going on in front of and behind the camera, the fact the end result is merely a “good” movie somehow feels disappointing.
“Sicario” is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.