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      Sicario Review

      Sicario poster

      Sicario

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      For a gripping documentary about the U.S./Mexico border, the drug trade and a hornet's nest of sociopolitical nightmares, watch Matthew Heineman's "Cartel Land."

      For a commercial thriller on related themes, "Sicario" will do. The first hour of this latest film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is sleek, terrific pulp. The second half of "Sicario" (in Mexico, slang for "hitman") settles for more conventional bloodshed and storytelling.

      Such films present a conundrum for any director with a semblance of a moral conscience: How do you make a movie built upon a revenge scenario and deliver the killing while also suggesting that the carnage is pretty appalling?

      "Sicario" opens just outside a suburban Phoenix home. An FBI raid is about to run into some serious opposition. The house belongs to a known Mexican drug lord. Agent Macer, played with a haunted look and pristine technique by Emily Blunt, bursts into a bedroom and, in an eyeblink, an armed thug takes his shot and misses, and Macer shoots him dead.

      Another agent spies something behind the bullet-ridden drywall: two dozen corpses, artifacts of the cartel's activities. More violence ensues.

      Macer is recruited to join a shadowy interdepartmental task force targeting the drug lord behind the drug lord. A CIA analyst, played with witty arrogance by Josh Brolin, explains to Macer that the idea is to "dramatically overreact" and show the Mexican cartel kingpins that dirty wars beget dirty wars. Benicio Del Toro is first seen on screen in the middle distance, as Brolin's character mentions his "bird dog," Alejandro. Del Toro plays this mercenary, a man with his own murky history with the cartels.

      The most ruthlessly suspenseful sequence in "Sicario" is a dazzlingly staged and edited ambush at the Juarez/El Paso border crossing. A much quieter scene later on points to Villeneuve's intelligent complication of our responses toward what happens. The scene in question places Brolin and Blunt in a long shot on a tarmac as Blunt's Macer hears from her superior just how little her cohorts are playing by what's left of the rules. The way it's handled here, you have a welcome shot of ambiguity.

      "Sicario" doesn't fall apart in its second half, exactly, but it does settle for less than it should. By design Macer remains a reactive presence, a conduit, though one dimension shy of a three-dimensional protagonist. As the Del Toro character closes in on his prey, the movie narrows and becomes more predictable. Yet even in the opening FBI raid, the behavior on screen feels real enough to matter.

      Villeneuve's next project is a "Blade Runner" sequel starring Ryan Gosling. The director's finest hour to date remains "Incendies" (2010). "Sicario" boasts passages as fine and harrowing as any in that picture, even with "Sicario's" script limitations and its vague odor of what might be called "scuzz tourism," following a longstanding tradition of Anglo protagonists tasting the rot south of the border. (The greatest scuzz-tourism movie ever: Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil.")

      What makes "Sicario" distinctive and, at its best, a little unnerving -- its chilly ambivalence toward everything Macer witnesses -- may limit its fortunes in the States. But as Marge Gunderson said in "Fargo," there's more to life than a little money.

      MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language).

      Running time: 2:01

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