Sicario is a film centered around the Mexican drug trade and America’s specious involvement therein; the film carries on the legacy of Traffic and the Counselor, but also takes inspiration from other films as well. A simple way to describe it is Black Hawk Down plus No Country for Old Men in the setting of the Counselor. Sprinkle in a little Zero Dark Thirty minus the ambiguous patriotism and you’re set. No Country also follows the drug trade but is much more focused on individuals than ideals so it doesn’t really fit the same exact mold.
You’ll recall the Counselor is a film written by Cormac McCarthy directly for the screen, said film was very divisive but certainly had fantastic dialogue and characters even if the plot was of the meandering variety. Sicario has very similar pacing to the Counselor, which is to say it doesn’t really care about constantly having something happen or having each scene explicitly tie into the next. However Sicario does sort of have the “comfort food” of shootouts and so on that make it a little easier to digest for most people; the shock value in Sicario is limited to a few specific scenes whereas the Counselor just has really weird shit happening the entire time. I wouldn’t force you to pick between either movie (both are excellent) but it is rather obvious why critics prefer the more recent film.
The Black Hawk Down connection is fairly simple, the first major action (if you can call it that) sequence of the film involves a huge train of SUVs with Texas Rangers, Delta Force, CIA, FBI, and Iraqi Combat Troops alongside the Mexican Police straight up invading Ciudad Juarez, heading extremely deep into your Mogadishu stand-in; at this point I was super invested in the movie and they definitely could have gone a whole lot of places, but the one they chose makes a bit more sense than various cinematic options that could have happened. There’s very brief and sudden violence in this part that reinforces the notion that Benicio Del Toro’s titular character is on even footing with America’s Elite troops, which is likely necessary for the (much later) best scene in the film to work.
Del Toro plays Alejandro, a Colombian equivalent of Anton Chigurh (whose background remains a mystery) for all intents and purposes, however instead of being an odd philosophical sort he’s basically just a mercenary boogie man that everyone is terrified of. Perhaps his most impressive trait is his method of interrogating people, whereas Chigurh might flip a coin and give you a mysterious speech Alejandro just invades your personal space. He more or less gets right up next to whomever and each one in turn is scared shitless by his very presence. Benicio Del Toro is 6’2 in reality and maybe bulked up a little for this film so I could see that working, especially if you had a universally known reputation.
Josh Brolin meanwhile just eats that shit up and cackles maniacally off to the side. At the outset of the film Brolin is introduced as a DoD operative but it quickly becomes obvious his origin is of CIA descent. He recruits FBI Agent (?) Emily Blunt after the exceptional initial scene of the film; who is basically a license for the Brolin to do extralegal activities in and around the United States. This is sort of a plot point in the movie but it’s kind of insanely obvious so when Blunt and her partner eventually realize this it falls flat since it’s so late in the film. This isn’t a huge issue with the movie but it does make those characters seem a little more foolish instead of just seeming idealistic.
The only other major flaw the film has is that presumably everyone watching knows everything is fucked and that nothing good or happy can come out of the film, such is the nature of Mexican Drug Cartel movies; however that didn’t stop them from putting in a really weird scene where there’s a brief interlude of presumed happiness which quickly aborts into something else entirely. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the scene in question and I really like the supporting scenes and how they tied it into the plot, but it just kind of dragged a little bit too long; especially when you realize the cause/effect right at the start of a ten minute sequence.
A point I haven’t really touched on too much so far is the film’s acceptance and even staunch belief in American Imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. This isn’t something that the film wants you to believe or even suggests overtly, it simply is in the film and is almost mandatory for you to understand the film. That being so it’s hard to say who exactly the antagonist of the film is, Del Toro is basically just a gun for hire; though a particularly menacing gun for hire. If this film was Traffic they would have included politics in the whole proceeding, but politics are decidedly absent from this film and anyone who actually understands American politics should be able to perceive why. There is no clear difference between the parties at present when it comes to Foreign Policy, and while this film is dealing with a matter closer to home the construction of the film is very much in the vein of a foreign policy matter; or at the very least a black ops matter.
There’s no elected officials in the film to begin with, though it is directly mentioned that the order and organization of the task force came from “on high” more or less. Those would be your typical villains, but this movie really doesn’t have any standard antagonistic characters. Antagonistic things happen and characters do things that would make them obviously the villain in a lesser film; but it is abundantly clear that there is no real, malicious intent on the part of any of the characters. Everyone is just doing their part in a horribly corrupt system more or less, and the people that question this are brought into line.
The victims, on the other hand, are very clear as we have a few more weird scenes in the film that make this a bit more obvious. The only people that really get fucked in the film are the Mexicans, sure Emily Blunt is in peril sometimes but that leads to a breakdown of her sense of justice not irreversible damage to her person. Emily Blunt is probably fine at the end of the movie, hell she might wind up being Brolin’s best bud in the future who knows. But we all know who gets the short end of the stick, because it sure as hell isn’t the Americans.
Overall this was a fantastic movie and is either the 2nd or 3rd best film I’ve seen all year alongside Mad Max and Mr. Holmes. The unorthodox structure is incredibly appealing and I’m glad they were able to work in enough of the more basic concepts to make it appeal to critics. At the end of the day, while there is at least one (the dining room) scene which is one of the best of all time, the film doesn’t really challenge you in the end, it doesn’t leave you with this lingering sense of dread, regret, or confusion. So while the film might technically be better than the Counselor it isn’t as thought provoking or as incredibly difficult to reconcile. A clearer portrayal of a similar message.