‘Sicario’ is a brutal look at drug war



Grade: B+

Starring Emily Blunt, John Bernthal and Josh Brolin. Directed by Dennis Villeneuve. In English and subtitled Spanish.

Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours.

Bottom line: A brutal drug war epic designed to stun

“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, 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.

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.

“Sicario” ticks like a bomb timer. The undercover activity moves ever deeper into murderous territory as Macer’s mission grows more brutal and sinister than she ever imagined.

From its shattering opening scene to its stunning conclusion, “Sicario” is a devastating sociopolitical horror show, a dramatic rockslide 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.