Skip to main content

Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end, you will understand.

Sicario
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Maybe Denis Villeneuve ought to call on his first language being French as an excuse for the script quality of his forays into Hollywood. First there was the overheated, ridiculous revenge picture Prisoners, masquerading as a serious exploration of the repercussions of child abduction, and now he’s taken a repeat course, plunging into the world of shadowy CIA operations and Mexican drug cartels, only to pull back and reveal that the movie didn’t really have important matters on its mind at all. It was just about a cool guy taking out the baddies. The acclaim both have received is slightly mystifying, although in Sicario’s case I’m at least partly along for the ride. This is a superbly directed movie, with several strong performances, and it’s only in the last third that the procedural aspect is revealed as little more than a sop, disguising its decidedly pulpy intent.


I’d read comparisons to Traffic, so I was lulled into thinking Sicario’s early stages were a positive sign, its unwilling to nursemaid its audience and over-explain its content; we share the confusion of the main protagonist. By the end, I was wondering if this might be a case of obfuscation due to embarrassment over how little of the plot really makes sense.


The only real point of reference to Traffic – apart from the drugs trade, obviously – seems to be the entirely superfluous plotline in which Mexican cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) is awoken by his son each morning and asked to come out and play football. Yes, I suppose it’s intended to illustrate how drug trafficking ruins lives and destroys families, but the actual integration is entirely artificial, inserted into a plot that, unlike Traffic, is entirely focussed on those out to bring down the cartel boss. As such, it feels flagrantly cynical, an attempt to persuade that it has the broader (awards-worthy?) substance of Soderbergh’s film.


Sicario is actor Taylor Sheridan’s first screenplay and, to give him credit, he appears to have a good sense of rhythm and structure, offering surprises and twists throughout. The problem is, those faculties aren’t necessarily in service of an internally coherent piece in the final analysis. Emily Blunt’s FBI SWAT team agent Kate Mace is offered an observational role in a unit consisting of Department of Defence flip-flops-wearing Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, revelling in the chance to play a completely self-regarding arsehole) and a Delta Force unit, after discovering an Arizona house filled with walled-up corpses. Having lost several colleagues, she’s keen to bring the perpetrator to justice so agrees to work with them.


Inevitably, the innocent has her eyes opened, and she discovers that the tactics and methods of Graver (actually a CIA officer) and his partner, the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), leave a lot to be desired, most of them being highly illegal. They make an incursion into Mexico, extracting one of cartel boss Manual Díaz’s (Bernardo P Saracino) lieutenants, during the course of which a sterling freeway shootout takes place. As her association with the team continues, she is continually undermined in her attempts to pursue legitimate means of bringing Diaz to justice, including prosecuting him for money laundering and being subjected to an attack by a dirty cop Ted (Jon Bernthal), during which Alejandro intervenes only at the last moment.


The team’s main goal is to set up a situation whereby Díaz reports back to “ghost” drug lord Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cedillo) so they can take him out, and this is where the picture begins to go awry for me. Ostensibly, it appears that the raid on the border tunnel used for drug smuggling is a distraction enabling Alejandro to get across and follow Díaz to his boss (presumably it also provides the CIA with alibi of conducting a legitimate operation), but if so it’s an astonishingly thin plan. 


The CIA is going to rely on just one man to go in and assassinate the drug lord? A man for whom circumstances blissfully collide, such that he hitches a ride with the corrupt cop known to Díaz? Added to which, the CIA appears to be following Díaz anyway, via the new Hollywood all-purpose plot device, a drone, since Alejandro is getting constant feedback on Alarcon’s estate and defences. So did they need Alejandro to make like a one-man army at all? I’m sure Sheridan has explanations for these points, but I doubt it will really make them any easier to swallow.


Essentially, this is where the picture drifts from suspension of disbelief into outright contrivance. It wouldn’t have looked so out of place for del Toro to have been straight swapped with Steven Seagal at the point where Alejandro rocks up and shoots all the bad guys. Except for killing the wife and kids, of course, as Seagal would never go that far; I guess we’re supposed to think this gives Alejandro a veneer of the grounding and believability (much the same as de rigueur scenes of waterboarding and cynicism with regards to the activities of ostensibly governmental institutions), but it does nothing of the sort.


The unlikeliness is compounded when we learn Alejandro’s background; he’s not CIA, he’s working for the rival Colombian Medellin Cartel, but even this is a means to an end. He’s out for revenge against Alarcón, who had his wife decapitated and his daughter dumped in an acid bath. Before all this, Alejandro was just a prosecutor in Juárez (now he is the Sicario – the hitman – of the title). Er, okay. So this is revealed as the tale of a lawyer who becomes a kick-ass ninja in order to wreak vengeance on those who finished his family. Suddenly Sicario’s gritty trappings fall around its ears with the revelation that Alejandro is Batman (I’ve seen it suggested that “prosecutor” is a reference to Alejandro’s method of killing, which is just plain silly, although I guess we’ll find out in the sequel, focussing on this vigilante for justice).


Having thoroughly undermined the character and the bedrock of the picture, there are still some decent scenes and moments to be had. Alejandro holding a gun under Kate’s chin, forcing her to sign the report legitimising the CIA operation (the only reasons she was invited along) has a certain potency. And there’s little need to convince the audience that the CIA would be willing to engage in re-introducing a status quo, fostering the continuing drugs trade through a reliable source (the Colombians) rather than one that is out of control; one might argue this is a much too charitable depiction of their essential corruptibility, and that they are really up to their armpits in coke, complicit with its cultivation and supply at every turn in the aid of black budgets (the recently explored subject matter of Kill the Messenger).


Which hastens a further question; if the CIA is so willing to circumvent and ignore every rule in the book to achieve their ends, why would they solicit the company of a straight-shooter like Kate (in the initial conversation, they reject her partner Reggie, The Fades' Daniel Kaluuya, for similar reasons). Do they really want to be encountering such problems every time they organise an illicit operation? They’d spend all their time threatening reluctant collaborators. Wouldn’t it be common-sense to either forge the whole thing/keep it off the official record or get someone in who is reliable and malleable, a tried and trusted FBI yes-person? Sure, the Sicario route makes for a dramatic charge, but it undermines the picture’s gritty posturing.


There are other points where the contrivance should have been a warning sign of the gaps in logic to come; Reggie’s best pal, whom Reggie is secretly setting Kate up on a date with, just happens to be a dirty cop out to get the skinny on what she knows on behalf of the cartel? No wonder the scene has caused confusion. It’s not a case of a densely layered picture requiring a repeat visit to glean all its riches; Sicario’s a muddle.


And yet, despite this, there’s much to like in the picture. Blunt may look a little willowy and un-SWAT like, but that works in the favour of the antagonistic, testosterone-charged milieu into which she is thrust. I rather liked that, for a change, the protagonist (well, until you find the makers are more interested in Alejandro) is out of her depth, and doesn’t get to indulge gun-totting justice at every opportunity, even if it beggars belief that someone in her line of work wouldn’t have eyes wide open to the ways and means of other agencies, even if she has no truck with dodgy dealings herself.


Villeneuve’s direction is outstanding. I completely see why he’s been engaged for Blade Runner 2; he and Roger Deakins will certainly ensure it looks fantastic. More worrying, though, is his aforementioned cluelessness with regards to scripts. If his English language track record is any indication, Rick Deckard’s return could be something of a train wreck (which, to be fair, I think most people are expecting anyway).


First rate set pieces litter the picture, including the raid on the house (although, even I know – from watching movies – that Kate is rubbish at clearing rooms) the gun battle on the freeway, Kate’s altercation with Ted, the night vision tunnel incursion, and – despite intruding from a completely different movie, or at least different to the one I thought this was – Alejandro’s assault on Alarcón’s residence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is every bit as impressive as you’d expect, while Johann Johannsson’s rumbly, oppressive score adds enormously to the mood (I wouldn’t be surprised if he has another Oscar nomination coming his way, although this is hardly the sort of thing you’d sit down and savour with a glass of wine and a good book).


Sicario isn’t nearly as stark, rigorous and uncompromising as you might have been led to expect, so it’s just like Prisoners in that respect. The action is as enervating and slick as in your typical action movie, while its characters and situations are as melodramatic they come. Nevertheless, Villeneuve fully succeeds in lending the picture a pervasively oppressive atmosphere (as he did with Enemy), underpinned by a barren, foreboding landscape. If you approach Sicario as an engaging thriller with about as much insight into the world of cartels as Point Break has into bank robberies, you probably won’t come away too disappointed.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

Yes, exactly so. I’m a humbug.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (SPOILERS) There are undoubtedly some bullet-proof movies, such is their lauded reputation. The Wizard of Oz will remain a classic no matter how many people – and I’m sure they are legion – aren’t really all that fussed by it. I’m one of their number. I hadn’t given it my time in forty or more years – barring the odd clip – but with all the things I’ve heard suggested since, from MKUltra allusions to Pink Floyd timing The Dark Side of the Moon to it, to the Mandela Effect, I decided it was ripe for a reappraisal. Unfortunately, the experience proved less than revelatory in any way, shape or form. Although, it does suggest Sam Raimi might have been advised to add a few songs, a spot of camp and a scare or two, had he seriously wished to stand a chance of treading in venerated L Frank Baum cinematic territory with Oz the Great and Powerful.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blake follows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.