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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Sicario, Review: One drug cartel is better than two


Sicario, Review: One drug cartel is better than two

Breath-taking aerial shots of the US-Mexico border area and amazingly choreographed encounter scenes are the highlight of Sicario, a drug cartel crime thriller about an FBI-CIA joint operation that does on land what the US army and air-force have been doing in foreign countries for decades: seek, find and eliminate the enemy. Every player has questionable motives, except a couple of conscientious FBI operatives, and even they eventually fall in line. It is a dark movie, with many unpalatable ‘truths’. A few hiccups come in the way of what could have been one of the ‘films of the year’. Absolutely watchable, nonetheless.

During a raid in Arizona, to rescue kidnapped refugees, idealistic FBI Special Weapons and Tactics Teams agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), and the rest of her team discover dozens of corpses within the walls of a house.  Suddenly, an explosion kills two officers. Her boss, Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), recommends her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Justice ‘adviser’, leading a team of elite agents who are searching for the men responsible, one of them being cartel boss Manuel Díaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). The team includes an enigmatic ‘consultant’, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), who has a questionable past.

She learns en route that they will not be operating inside the US, but actually be going to Mexico, instead, from where they will extract a prisoner, Guillermo, one of Díaz's top men, for questioning in the US. While crossing back into the United States over the Bridge of the Americas, Matt, Alejandro, and their team, realise that some of the cars are carrying cartel members who are attempting to intercept them in a traffic jam, to try and rescue Guillermo, and the team is forced to kill them all. Matt and his team are interested in finding Díaz's boss, drug-lord Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cedillo). Matt explains that their goal is to restore power to the Colombian Medellín cartel. By returning control of the drug trade to a single cartel, there can be some semblance of order, and that is the best that the U.S. can hope for at this time.

TV actor turned writer Taylor Sheridan paces his narrative with great skill. There has also been a lot of research into the drug/human traffic trade along the border and the international cartels that run it. Benicio del Toro’s character is well-fleshed out, and his motivations not fully revealed till almost the end, whereas Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya’s parts are far from convincing. On the plus side, the track about Kate’s bra is written with commendable subtlety. The walk-in exterminations in the climax are a big let-down and hardly credible. Secrecy about the operation is uncalled for, since the men who keep it secret spill parts of it regularly, when confronted by the FBI duo. A parallel track about the corrupt Mexican police officer called Silvio, his loving wife and the son they both dote on, is very touching. However, Sheridan fails to integrate it into the main story. Complete anarchy in Mexico and rampant corruption this side of the border might even be true, but such completely dark shades, with almost no greys for relief, make the tale lop-sided. For the rest, it is rivetting fare.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) sets-up an insider’s point of view that is awesome. The POV of Kate is not. In essence, there is not much of a story, so his classy, stylised shot-taking is key. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is up to the task, as the unit manages to pull-off the nail-biting ‘extraction’ with élan. Villeneuve is, sadly, unable to retain the spell, which wanes occasionally, and directorial indulgence takes over.

Emily Blunt (British American, The Devil Wears Prada, Edge of Tomorrow, Into the Woods) told the media that her portrayal was inspired by real-life female officers. That’s nice. Unfortunately, it does not make it interesting. She is suitably agonised at discovering the highly questionable collaboration between the CIA and the FBI, but shows neither the physical stamina nor the mental strength required to of a person in her place. Benicio Del Toro, the Puerto Rican actor (Traffic, Paradise Lost, Che, The Usual Suspects), is the star and mainstay of the film, and only stutters when given a flat ending to play out. Josh Brolin (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men, Milk) plays a stock CIA character, who is introduced wearing slippers at a top level meeting. Victor Garber looks entirely convincing and imparts dignity to his role, as does Jon Bernthal (Ted). Looking his part and getting the nuances right, Daniel Kaluuya could have done with more meat. Julio Cedillo looks menacing and has one long scene in the end, which he acts out in formulaic style.

Several bitter pills are offered in the film: Drug trafficking is consumption based (nothing new, though); It is okay to allow drug smuggling into the US, so long as there is only one cartel to manage; The Mexicans learnt it from the Americans and the Colombians; Americans always think they are one-up on South American countries and accept their mistakes only at the end; If you need to infiltrate a foreign country, just attach an FBI agent to a CIA team, to get legitimacy; Intelligence officials can shoot dozens of persons in cold blood and inflict third-degree torture on gang-members, to extract information; honesty, uprightness and conscientiousness, rule of law and going by the book are misplaced values in 21st century American society; and so on. All this may not be totally new in contemporary American cinema, but Sicaro gives it an authentic feel that is highly disturbing.

There is an opening card that explains the title, informing us that Sicario was the name of those who resisted Roman colonial invaders, and that in Mexico, it means ‘hit-man’. After such a detailed definition, the word is hardly used in the film. In any case, who was the Sicario? No character fits that description.

Sicaro is a crime thriller with a difference. In the end, that difference falls short of excellence.

Rating: ***



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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