I didn’t know much about Sicario before watching and having now seen it, I think that was a good thing. I will therefore endeavour to avoid as many spoilers as possible in this review but as ever, if you want to go in knowing nothing, it’s best to put reading this review on pause, and come back after you’ve seen the film.
For those of you still reading, my initial thoughts were that with a cast list boasting the likes of Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin among others, Sicario should be a decent enough watch. While I wouldn’t exactly call myself a dedicated fan of any of them, they have certainly made a few decent films between them, so I was tentatively hopeful that this wouldn’t disappoint.
While it is tricky to write this without including some spoilers,but as you can see from the trailer below, at first glance, Sicario appears to be the latest Emily Blunt: Action Hero film:
In reality, the film certainly felt much less of an action film than the trailer makes out. While there is certainly some action, it is somewhat episodic in nature and is juxtaposed with much slower, more reflective scenes.
The film revolves around the actions and exploits of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent. We learn in the opening few minutes that she is involved in an ongoing battle against Mexican drug cartels which are getting up to all sorts of mischief in the US-Mexican border states.
I don’t know many films that open with scenes that cause hardened FBI agents to start vomiting on-screen, and that prompted the cinema-goer seated next to me to accidentally utter “oh my god” aloud in the cinema, but this one does.
From that opening, Sicario takes a series of twists and turns, some if not all of which are fairly standard in this sort of film as by the book FBI agent fights against a lawless criminal underworld which they do not understand, and of which they cannot really comprehend the full depth and breadth. It is a fairly well-worn idea nowadays and tends to be the go to for those wanting to make gritty cop dramas, but done right, it can still be effective.
This film doesn’t get it perfect, but it does just enough to make it watchable and enjoyable…or at least as enjoyable as a film with growing tension, suspense and grim death and mutilation can be. The switch between action and contemplative scenes gives the film a much more staccato feel than is suggested by the trailer, but not necessarily in a bad way. While it might frustrate or even annoy some people, I found the contrasting nature of the scenes added to the tension and suspense that was undoubtedly building throughout the film.
The sense of impending doom is helped by a really well developed score which is used perfectly to build tension. The throbbing, pulsing soundtrack is particularly effective in building up to action scenes, while remaining deliberately understated in the less action focused, more contemplative scenes. While it isn’t a soundtrack to buy and listen to in its own right, it is certainly effective in creating just the right blend of visual and aural intensity throughout, without ever being overbearing.
This is helped by the fact that while the viewer does know the end-game fairly early on, we, just like Emily Blunt’s character, are often kept in the dark about the details of the ongoing activities. It adds an extra element of danger and intrigue as we watch events unfold without ever quite knowing what will actually happen, and perhaps more importantly, who will survive.
There were also some surprisingly well placed moments of levity in the film. Not many, and I don’t think anyone would ever consider this remotely close to a comedy (though the same could be said for Vacation) but the very brief injection of humour helps to diffuse some of the suspense at just the right times, giving the viewer a few moments to breath before the next frantic descent into anxiety evoking action and drama.
But as with any film, Sicario isn’t without its faults. While the leads all deliver good performances, both the plot and the characters revert to clichés at times. If you’ve ever seen a law enforcement film involving the FBI and other agencies, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the usual tropes of personality and jurisdiction clashes. It also explores personal and professional morality, as well as vengeance in an all too familiar manner, which may leave some viewers slightly bored and frustrated, but I felt the acting was good enough, and the story engaging enough that I could forgive its more less subtle, more blunt (pun not intended) attempts to deal with these all too familiar plot points.
One thing that is clear is that the director Denis Villeneuve enjoys his artistic shots, whether they be dust floating in the light from a partially open window, or a silhouetted Arizonian sunset. I felt they were a little too lingering at times and felt somewhat out of place with the rest of the film. While I appreciate the attempts to combine the frantic with the serene, there were times when it felt like they had accidentally combined two different films in the editing room. Thankfully, these were few and far between, but when they did occur, it felt rather jarring and detracted from the film overall.
Aside from that though, the film was well made and well shot with an excellent score which was able to emphasise and enhance the foreboding nature of the film without ever overwhelming it, or the viewer. While Sicario does lack some originality in both plot and characters, there are a number of good performances, with del Toro in particular able to bring a brooding yet somehow sympathetic menace to the film. I found some of the characters developments and reversion to fairly standard tropes a bit disappointing, but, it is to the films overall credit that these were not enough to ruin what was otherwise a perfectly decent, if somewhat unoriginal film.