Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Review: Sicario (2015)

Major spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned. First off, I'll acknowledge that Sicario looks great, has an inventive, tension-inducing musical score, and has some action set pieces that are really, really well choreographed. That's where the good news ends. Sicario is also the most badly-plotted film I've seen in a very long time. Some of the Roger Moore James Bond films have more logical and believable plots. The few reviews I've read of Sicario (all laudatory) have apparently been blind to this titanic flaw, apparently fooled by the film's muscular realism and energy. This is a film that skips merrily from one bit of plot inanity to another without catching its breath. And that's not the worst thing about Sicario.

The first scene in the film has FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leading a raid on a suburban house in Arizona that we assume is a drug den or something of that ilk. She kills one of the men guarding the house and then finds that the ranch bungalow's walls are stuffed with bodies, victims, presumably, of a Mexican drug cartel. Why the cartel would go to all this bother rather than burying people in the surrounding empty desert isn't explained, nor why a cartel henchman would fire at Kate when it's a clear he has no chance to avoid arrest. I'll give the scriptwriter a pass on this one, as the real purpose of the scene is to show us that Kate isn't reluctant to shoot people and that the cartel does some really bad things. Shortly after this raid, Kate is asked to volunteer for a special task force that's targeting the head of one of the Mexican cartels. The task force is led by Matt (Josh Brolin), who commands a small force of ex-Navy Seals(?), and one scary dude named Alejandro played by Benicio del Toro.

From here on, the plot get worse. The film's main action sequence involves the transfer of a prisoner from a jail in Juarez to the American side of the border just a few miles away. It's great cinema, but it has no internal logic. Why ferry the prisoner out of Juarez in a convoy of SUVs (they're ambushed, naturally) when a chopper ride would be easier? Even more ridiculously, the convoy has a cleared road and Mexican police escorts from the border to the prison, but then when they get back to the border the convoy vehicles have to line up with all the other daytrippers going to the U.S. They couldn't get a special lane to themselves for the return journey? Was U.S. Customs afraid the Seals might bring back some undeclared booze? An ambush takes place that's notable for continuing the cinematic trope of henchman being more than willing to give up their lives in a lost cause.

The film's big plot reveal comes past the halfway mark when Matt tells Kate that the only reason she was asked to volunteer for the group is so the CIA could operate on U.S. soil. Evidently the law dictates that the CIA can't operate domestically unless it's allied with a law enforcement agency. So Kate's role is purely symbolic. And why the CIA, you ask? Because they want to wipe out the Mexican cartels and replace them with the Medellin cartel from Colombia. According to Matt, things were better for everyone when only one cartel was in charge of things. All I can say is that a CIA plot this stupid belongs in a Steven Seagal movie.

And that brings me to the film's biggest problem: Kate isn't just a footnote to the CIA's operation, she's a footnote in the film. Take Kate out of the film and absolutely nothing about the story changes. The CIA operation goes as planned, the same people end up dead, and the same final result is achieved. Kate is entirely superfluous. If that wasn't bad enough, the film also goes whole hog on the sexism and misogyny. Kate might be brave, good with guns, and able to kill ruthlessly when necessary, but that's only the script paying lip service to the idea of gender equality. What the story has her mostly doing is fulfilling the traditional role of women in issue-oriented action films; she acts as the scold and nag, the voice of conscience. Poor Emily Blunt has to spend the entirety of the film whining and complaining about "following procedure", and generally being the finger-wagging schoolmarm/mom/wife while Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro get to act cool, look cool, and talk cool. The film then doubles down on the sexism with some bonus misogyny; to wit, Kate is held down and choked by a corrupt cop (and rescued by Alejandro); shot in her bulletproof vest by Alejandro; and then knocked to the ground and pinned there like an unruly puppy or disobedient child by Matt. What all three scenes have in common is that she's assaulted by these men after she dares to interfere with or criticize their respective schemes. And the film's penultimate scene has Kate crying when Alejandro forces her to sign an incriminating document, because, well, girls always cry under pressure, don't they?

With a 93% approval rating on, it's clear that Sicario's technical excellence and sharp action sequences have acted as a smokescreen to a more critical examination of its script. Take away Denis Villeneuve's slick direction and Roger Deakins' wonderful cinematography and you have a film that feels like a sequel to Lone Wolf McQuade, a Chuck Norris vehicle from the 1980s. The plot is an unholy mess, its sexual politics are reprehensible, and the politics of the drug trade are ignored in favour of random scenes that reassure we northerners that Mexico is just as big a hellhole as we imagine it to be.


Unknown said...

Many happy returns to JC's star reviewer

DarQ DawG said...

"All I can say is that a CIA plot this stupid belongs in a Steven Seagal movie."

Or in the real world... because... like... the CIA is historically a very stupid organization.

Cary Watson said...

You have a point there, DawG.

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