Sicario is one of those movies that come with a lot of hype that it doesn’t quite live up to, while remaining an awfully good movie anyway. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent specializing in kidnapping cases. She leads a SWAT team into a very nice home in Chandler Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, only to discover a horror show; dozens of bodies sheetrocked into the walls. Her handling of the case brings her to the attention of Matt (Josh Brolin), who recruits her into an anti-drug task force he heads up. She soon meets Matt’s partner, Alejandro, (Benicio Del Toro), who, she’s told vaguely, is a DEA asset. She’s never quite sure of Matt either–what agency he works for, what his authority might be, though her superiors make it clear that questioning any of that is way beyond her pay grade. And so begins her slow descent into the moral quagmire of America’s (and Mexico’s) war on drugs. Kate’s a cop’s cop; she wants to bust bad guys, build cases that can be prosecuted in a court of law; she wants clear-cut rules and procedures, and she want her work to be by the book. Matt and Alejandro make clear what they think of her naivete. That’s not remotely what they do, though what they do does seem to have been approved by someone. By someone ‘elected,’ she’s condescendingly informed.
I’ve heard this movie described as shocking and profoundly disturbing and a revelation. I didn’t find it to be any of those things. These are movie tropes of an ancient lineage; morally ambiguous cops who stray outside normal procedures to disrupt and disturb the heads of big drug cartels? We haven’t seen that before? Like in every episode of The Wire? Or the deeply troubled cop seeking revenge for the dreadful things some bad guys did to his family? Seen it all before.
A ‘sicario’ is, as an early title informs us, an assassin. I suppose part of the mystery of the piece is to figure out which of these characters is, in fact, not a cop, but an assassin, a sicario. Except that I figured that out twenty minutes in. Not to spoil things by spilling those particular frijoles, but it’s not all that difficult; I’ll bet you figure it out too, just as quickly.
So it’s really a pretty conventional example of the ‘nihilist cop revenge narrative.’ Like, say, The Departed, The French Connection, Chinatown, all the Dirty Harry movies, Heat, Traffic, Bullitt, Training Day, all the Lethal Weapons, End of Watch, Donnie Brasco, LA Confidential, or The Untouchables? It’s still stylishly made, and exceptionally well acted.
Del Toro is particularly magnificent. He looks ravaged, and all the more dangerous for it. Near the end of the movie, he explains to Kate why she could never fight the war that consumes him. “You’re not a wolf,” he says. “And this is the time for wolves.” And later, when she’s given the chance to shoot him, she can’t bring herself to do it, in part because he had earlier saved her life. His Alejandro is haunted, compassionate, and utterly ruthless. It’s a brilliant creation. Brolin is equally terrific, playing a cheerful cynicism, perhaps even a trifle gleeful in his nihilism.
It’s Emily Blunt, though, who the movie is built around, and she’s fine. For me, though, she seemed just a trifle too naive. A woman with her history dealing with criminals wouldn’t seem quite so surprised (or appalled) at Matt and Alejandro’s antics.
And, thank heavens, the movie does finally place the blame for the destruction and death and mayhem of the drug wars where the blame belongs; squarely on the shoulders of the American people. In the film, Brolin casually mentions the 20% of Americans who regularly use illegal drugs. In fact, the number is nowhere near that high; it’s more like 7.5%, and most of that is marijuana; only about two million Americans regularly abuse cocaine and meth. That’s still a sizeable market. Add to that the tendency of American voters to prefer anti-drug hysteria for sensible drug policy, and our usual casually Trumpian racism towards Mexico, and we have all the necessary elements for a first-rate drug war. Cocaine is a commercial product, and its price is controlled by the immutable laws of supply and demand. Treat drug abuse (and addiction) as a public health problem and not a criminal problem, and demand would drop, leading to a drop in prices, and, presumably, lucrative criminality. This is a stylish and fashionably hopeless (and to be honest, a fashionably sentimental) movie. But it describes a problem that could be solved.
And not by running around shooting the poor soldiers and mules and corrupt (but soccer-playing) cops of the Mexican drug cartels. No matter how mean they were to your poor lost daughter. We need sensible policy, working in concert with Mexican officials and authorities. Not an army of American Dirty Harrys.