A Slow Burn That Pays Off: “Sicario” Is Not Your Typical Action Movie

Review, “Sicario” — *** stars (out of ****)

Released September 18, 2015
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya
Running Time: 121 minutes
Budget: $30 million
Worldwide Box Office: $66.6 million (666!)

Walking into “Sicario,” I was expecting your standard over-the-top action movie about the war on drugs, with everyone trying to take out The Big Bad Drug Tycoon. Instead, I was confronted with something that handles the conflict with considerably more nuance and raw-knuckle intensity.

“Sicario” kicks things off with a kidnapping raid in Chandler, Arizona where we meet our main protagonist, agent Kate Macer, played with gravitas and balls by the amazing Emily Blunt. After Macer and her team make a big bust, Kate’s boss recommends her to CIA agent Matt Graver (the bad-ass Josh Brolin) and his partner Alejandro (the even-more-bad-ass Benicio Del Toro). All three leads then unite in search of drug lord Guillermo (Edgar Arreola).

Despite a languid, slow-burn first 40 minutes, “Sicario” shifts gears around the top of the Act II, and transitioning into on the edge-of-your-seat intensity. The Blunt character serves as the audience’s window into this universe, and her greenness and vulnerability keeps her survival enjoyably in doubt. Brolin’s character is a very laid back the kind of guy that wears flip flops to a meeting of an attack plan, which when he gets serious makes it that much more terrifying and powerful. Del Toro’s character, first established as man of few words, steals the show as the film progresses. It’d be nice to see him in more movies again.

Scribe Taylor Sheridan was formerly an actor on “Sons of Anarchy,” he wrote “Sicario on spec. It’s quite the debut. Most notable is a surprisingly effective storytelling choice that deviates from the typical cinematic dicta, telling instead of showing all the sins committed by our drug kingpin. He’s established through what are essentially campfire stories, and this only adds to his menace, before tying in snugly to a pretty damn cool climax. Another shout-out goes to Roger Deakins’s amazing cinematography — every shot, every camera move ratchets up the suspense a notch or five. If you thought that “Skyfall” had great silhouette shots (especially during Bond’s epic Shanghai skyscraper battle with Ola Rapace), “Sicario” gives it a run for its money with a silhouette showcase in an underground trench. How the man has yet to win an Oscar (after 12 nominations!) is wholly beyond me.

The flick is held back from reaching a higher tier by that languid first act. Which is really too bad, because it clicks on all its other cylinders with great characters; Deakins’s great camerawork; and capable direction from Canada’s Denis Villeneuve, responsible for the surprisingly-good “Prisoners” (2013) and the smaller pseudo-abstract Jake Gyllenhaal doppelganger novelty “Enemy” (2014).

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