Sicario, and its sequel, Sicario: The Day of the Soldado, are quite the violent journeys through the Mexican cartels. Both are complex action-thrillers.
Sicario is primarily about (Emily Blunt) FBI agent Kate Macer, as she joins forces with shadowy members of a joint task force of Defense Department and Justice Department operatives, plus CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). In the background is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who we never quite know his role, other than he is an assassin because the cartel murdered his family. He is out for revenge, but what his official role is, we never quite understand.
Sicario is quite vivid in the violence and grip of the drug cartels on both sides of the border. There is a grim reality represented in the film. Like Jaws, the music in this film, the low rumbling sound, telegraphs the danger that we begin to feel moving into the scene. The sound is not music as much as it is a jagged, industrial noise. The Macer character never gives in to the lawlessness she observes by the task force. She does not understand their actions, it violates her principles, and she comes close to losing her life over it. The film shows how “the good guys” must go off the reservation to play the game of the cartel. Macer will have none of it, which puts her in conflict with Graver and Gillick.
A revenge film, Sicario does not always show the violence with graphic horror. There is a lot of violence, but director Denis Villeneuve dials it back to keep the audience from being repulsed. I was unfamiliar with Villeneuve’s work, but he’s gone on to direct Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. The cinematography is incredible and it is a strong point of the film. Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, A Serious Mind, Skyfall) has two Academy Awards to his name, so his camera and lighting work is greatly respected by his peers.
Taylor Sheridan wrote both films, with Sicario being his first produced screenplay. Both films have a healthy dose of grit and realism. He creates a world of covert operations that seems dangerously plausible. The characters of Macer, Graver and Gillick are quite believable. While you do not know much about their past or their present, each are sculpted to fit the story. Josh Brolin as Graver seems to have the most fun as he gives Graver both heart and a coldness. Sheridan went on to co-created the popular cable mini series, Yellowstone.
Sicario: The Day of the Soldado does not really take up where the first film left off, although its story does seem to eventually find familiar ground. The film is split between Graver and Gillick, Macer does not return. A bit more of the political world seeps into the story as we see Graver navigate the tricky defense establishment. He feels betrayed which allows him to understand the other end of the stick, similar to how Macer felt in the first film. Graver is best when he is commanding a strike team, which he often does in both films. Gillick operates as part of the team, but also goes out on his own. In this film, he finds the kidnapped cartel kingpin’s daughter and tries to get her to safety. The plan backfires, leaving Gillick fighting for his life. Graver assumes that Gillick is dead and disavows orders by rescuing the girl, to complete Gillick’s mission, instead of allowing her die. There is some honor in this game of deceit and double-cross.
As a viewer, you get wrapped up in the films and you begin to care about the characters, even if you do not totally like them. This is not a Rambo film where you cheer at the end of the carnage. The films’ endings are a bit uncomfortable, representing how unsettling reality can be.