Are the drug lords of Mexico at our gates like a barbarian horde?
The thriller “Sicario” artfully gives this impression. It opens with FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) finding a house full of dead bodies in Arizona, which, compared with the gravity of what follows, is like finding a bruise that hides a rampantly metastasizing cancer. In fact, one shadowy character Kate soon meets, a government agent cannily played by Josh Brolin, argues that the job shouldn’t be arresting offenders but finding a vaccine.
Leading an interagency effort to turn up the heat on the Mexican cartels, Brolin’s character (he and his cohorts have names that may be invented) convinces Kate to join them. To this point she merely has been providing palliative care to U.S. border states in her efforts against human trafficking. Brought into this new, sprawling, covert endeavor, Kate must look sharp and keep up. “Sicario” moves fast, the movie equivalent of shock and awe.
Though a potentially intriguing female protagonist in an action-centric film, Blunt’s character is undermined and backgrounded while “Sicario” introduces each one of her steely eyed male superiors who take turns telling her to be quiet and listen up. Purposely or not, the film relegates Kate to obvious audience surrogate, explicitly told to “observe” and “learn.” What we observe is one remarkable set piece after another.
In one long and typical example, a specially designated force surreptitiously invades another country. Like most of “Sicario” the sequence is lengthy, amazingly conceived and riveting, but also is mostly dramatic sleight of hand, leading not to revelations but to more set pieces. Kate is alarmed by the disrespect for the law she observes, but what she’s learning is anyone’s guess.
And yet it’s difficult to argue against watching “Sicario.” It’s incredibly made, lensed by “Prisoners” and “Skyfall” cinematographer Roger Deakins. He and “Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve expertly bound from one location to the next, taking their audience on a wild ride that feels like “Traffic” by way of “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Acting also is uniformly strong. Benicio Del Toro in particular mesmerizes with another late-career resurgence role as Alejandro, a truly imposing terror to the Mexican cartel members, who seem to break out into a sweat at his mere appearance. One of the film’s strengths is goading us into rooting for him, while keeping us entirely uncertain whether we should.
It’s too bad all this great talent and craft is in the service of a search that ultimately feels pointless. “Sicario” offers plenty of exciting moments, but it goes in too many directions for its own good. Blunt essentially is wasted in her role. She doesn’t have the authority to develop as a character, much less the time to do so. It isn’t long before we feel like her FBI partner (Daniel Kaluuya), who demands to know why she’s going through all this.
That’s a question that haunts “Sicario,” even its few quiet moments, when the audience is given a chance to catch its breath and wonder if what it’s seeing has meaning beyond impressing with astounding filmmaking. Yes, the world is burning while we fiddle with our iPads, but it isn’t enough to merely show it happening, not even if you can show it this realistically.
“Sicario” often feels like two competing sensibilities, like one camp behind the film wanted to expose the dangers of the Mexican drug cartels, while another, armed with steady cams and way too much directionless talent, pushed things way too far into “Call of Duty” territory.
One question: Who are these drug traffickers and why should we fear them? “Sicario” is too busy being thrilling to remember to tell us. Its ceaseless attempt to up the ante is both its strength and its fatal flaw. Always on the move, it never has time for the human drama that made “Prisoners” so much more than a thriller. There’s no reflection, only constant forward motion, like a boot kicking in a door over and over again.
“Sicario” musters all the tools and talent the film industry can provide to say something important about the violence in the scary world of drugs and borders. But in its dark alleys and tunnels, with all its high-tech equipment and gun battles and menacing figures, it forgot what it wanted to say. (R) 121 min. S