More than 70,000 people are estimated to have died in the Mexican drug war starting 2006. Its top drug cartel kingpin, considered the biggest druglord of all time and America’s Most Wanted, escaped from prison a little over two months ago after being captured with great difficulty. So when mysterious government men get jet planes to fly around other mysterious men, land at Air Force bases, fly into a Mexico city, and get a cavalcade of arms-toting gunmen as escort, some serious business has to be going down.
We all get that, right? Not Blunt’s Kate Mercer, an FBI agent who has lost some comrades in arms and has now idealistically jumped head-strong into battle under a man who matters enough to get by wearing flip-flops into important high-level meetings. Matt Graver’s actual designation remains a secret, and if that is not a red herring, the fact that he is played by Brolin with his usual measure of underlying, twinkle-eyed secrets, is enough. Still, Kate carries her idealism through, into much blood, some danger and many bodies.
Sicario, which means hitman, would suffer if Blunt wasn’t playing that role. But it also suffers for putting her there, as the outsider in a film with few people without blood on their hands. By the end, she may remain the only person in the hall surprised at how things turn out.
Kate gets co-opted into the battle after a raid on a house where she loses some men, for reasons that remain unclear till the last. She brings in a friend, Reggie, who is clearly unwanted by Graver and the others who have hired her. The film’s only reason to have him around is to infuse some degree of humour into the film, particularly about Kate’s bra, and make her more of a person. It doesn’t.
The action comes almost immediately after Kate enters the picture. Villeneuve builds up some scenes beautifully, such as the ride through a Mexico town where danger lurks and where the cars seem as vulnerable because of the bumpy ride and those men atop them with fingers on the trigger of heavy-duty guns. The music, sometimes just the sound of the whirr of the helicopter blades, adds to the atmosphere.
The Americans — an assortment of ex-military, FBI and unspecified types such as Matt and a fellow who hangs around with them, Alejandro (Del Toro) — are escorting a prisoner back. It’s not very clear why the guy has to be driven back through the border and not flown out, but it does allow Villeneuve to carry the suspense through a tense border crossing where a jam traps our guys for a heart-stopping shootout.
The film never really reaches that level of tension again, though there is even a night-goggle trek through underground tunnels. We also never get the sense of the actual battle being fought, though the brutality of it is repeatedly justified. A scene where Mexican border-crossers are made to wait for questioning, lined up on the road, is particularly harrowing.
However, better watch this film for Blunt and particularly Del Toro, who is a treat as a man with ghosts to slay. To have a better understanding of what Mexico means in the drug war, rent Traffic.
Graver explains to Kate that the purpose of their mission is to create “dramatic overreaction”. If that.
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin