Emily Blunt stars as a Phoenix-based FBI agent who joins a federal task force to go after a Mexican drug lord. Once the team (led by a smug Josh Brolin, perfectly cast) takes her out of legal jurisdiction, however, and over the border into Juarez, Mexico, this squeaky-clean cop smells a C.I.A. plot. And guess what? She's not wrong.
Sicario has a tremendous mise en scène. It's a term I almost never use, but it's appropriate here, not only because director Denis Villeneuve is French-Canadian, but because Sicario is more than just stylish – it's visually unique. Half the shots and edits are set up so that you don't know exactly who or what you should be looking at. The results make you as paranoid as Blunt's character – in the midst of the hellish Mexican drug war, anyone could start shooting, or get shot, at any moment – and it ratchets up the film's tension. It doesn't hurt that Villeneuve is working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose output is never less than spectacular.
There's only one real issue with the otherwise masterful Sicario, and that is Blunt. Far from the ass-kicker she played in Edge of Tomorrow, here she is your basic Passive Protagonist, a stand-in for the audience who mostly just asks, "What are we doing here?" – usually with no reply. Without giving anything away, I understand that her uselessness is basically the film's point. But I kept wishing she could be more canny. As the only woman in an all-male task force (who, somewhat unbelievably, don't act the least bit sexist around her), you'd think she'd know how to navigate around these machos. Instead she is repelled by them, a frightened goody-goody who is thoroughly out of her depth. (Again, probably the film's point.)
This leads us to the real star of Sicario: Benicio Del Toro, as the mystery man who tags along on the mission. Slowly we learn who he is, and why he's there – hint, it has something to do with the film's title, which is defined in the opening seconds – but even in scenes where he's just quietly sitting in the corner, he commands our attention. By the end, Sicario is entirely Del Toro's movie, and Blunt, for better or worse, is a nonentity. No surprise that a sequel is already being considered – one with Del Toro front and center.
In any event, Sicario is a terrific, politically-charged thrill ride, in the vein of The Hurt Locker and Captain Phillips. It's a grim but honest look at what's going on in Mexico with the cartel wars, and the conspiracy theory at the story's core is absolutely brilliant – and plausible. Look past Blunt, or at least accept the reasons behind her character's ineffectiveness, and you'll find a great film.