‘Sicario’ Plays Like ‘Traffic’ By Way Of Michael Mann

is so good at building suspense that it almost doesn’t matter that it tends to get kind of stupid whenever the suspense is broken. It’s the rare film whose construction almost matters more than the ideas behind it. At its best, Sicario, from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, is the kind of movie Michael Mann used to make – tense action, gruff badasses who are great at their jobs, vaguely pessimistic about the world but with a minimum of introspection. At its worst, it’s cruel, overly self-serious, and occasionally silly, but it looks and sounds so good I imagine most people won’t care. Roger Deakins shooting desert landscapes from a helicopter? Yeah, you might want to see this one on an IMAX screen.

Emily Blunt plays the hero, an in-over-her-head SWAT cop who will get shot, stabbed, choked, punched, bludgeoned and smooshed face first against various textures and terrain (she’s like human silly putty!) during her quest to learn The Truth About The Drug Cartels. She eats from the tree of knowledge and oops, it’s full of dead Mexicans.

Blunt, who pulls off tough girl even though she seems too pretty for it (she’s kind of like Jessica Chastain, but more believable), joins a new task force made up of a wise-cracking (yet hard assed) government spook played by Josh Brolin (PERFECT casting) and a near-mute mystery man played by Benicio Del Toro. Of Del Toro’s character (the “sicario” of the title), you get the sense that he’ll flip you. Flip you for real.

Their first op together is transporting a drug lord’s brother back across the border from Juarez, accompanied by a small army of Delta Force commandos and a handful more Mexican state police (who are probably on the take and not to be trusted). The way Deakins, Villeneuve, and especially Sicario‘s sound designer build tension is an absolute master class in filmmaking.

Sicario‘s greatest strength is that it’s a shoot em up that knows gunshots in and of themselves aren’t a draw. At this point, we’ve all seen a shoot ’em up. John Woo had to pull doves out of his pockets to make it feel fresh, and that was 20 years ago. Sicario knows that it’s less about the shooting itself than the suspense of wondering when and how the shooting’s going to start. Sicario builds and maintains tension so well that you’re in a forgiving mood once tension is broken, and something weird and implausible happens. Like criminals who basically commit suicide by cop with no motive or explanation. Maybe they’re just stupid? Stupid character are fine, a bonus, even (Elmore Leonard and Richard Linklater in particular are geniuses when at writing smart scenes about dumb people), but stupidity shouldn’t be a crutch, the explanation you offer in the absence of anything else.

“Why’d they do that?”

“Dunno, I guess they were really dumb.”

In Elmore Leonard’s world, the cops (at least the local ones) were almost always the dumb ones. In Sicario, the task force are near-invincible badasses, and drug gang members, when they’re depicted at all, are bloodthirsty, suicidal maniacs. That doesn’t stop Sicario from being tense, taut, lean — all of your favorite adjectives.

Still, it’s hard not to notice that in both Prisoners and now Sicario, Denis Villeneuve seems to have a cruel, punitive streak that’s left almost entirely unexamined. I don’t say that lightly, because I generally have a soft spot for misanthropes, but there isn’t much glee to Villeneuve’s misanthropy. It can sometimes feel like he’s daydreaming about people messing with his wife/daughter/dog/car/special lady just so he can feel justified in doing something horrible to them. He’s cynical about people, but not about the value of justice and retribution, oddly.

For the most part, though, Sicario lets you get away with a maximum of sweating and a minimum of thinking. After his sojourn prettying up Angelina Jolie’s otherwise awful Unbroken, it’s nice to see Big Lebowski cinematographer Roger Deakins apply his talents somewhere useful, and he and Denis Villeneuve make beautiful music together. It’s a little meatheaded, but a solid meat-and-potatoes action thriller nonetheless.

Recommended Companion Viewing: Cartel Land, a documentary about the relationship between law enforcement and drug cartels, and Narco Cultura, a bleak documentary about ranchero music and the drug war in Juarez.

Grade: B+

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.