Despite great cast, ‘Sicario’ can’t figure out what it’s about

Here’s the problem with Sicario: The movie doesn’t seem to realize what its best assets are. It’s the latest example of a film or TV show that makes the mistake of focusing on the wrong character for their stories.

Sometimes, it’s intentional, with the less compelling figure acting as an entry into a particular world. Tron: Legacy is but one recent example. Garrett Hedlund’s Sam Flynn was the audience’s ticket back to the computerized universe in which the story took place. But Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn was the far more intriguing character, having lost control of his creation and becoming separated from the life (and family) he built.

The Strain is another example of this on TV. (At least I think it is, because I gave up on it before the first season finished.) The lead, Corey Stoll’s Ephraim Goodweather, is as much of a snooze as his name. Meanwhile, the cast includes vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, who had to kill his wife after she was turned into a bloodsucker. If Goodweather became interesting in the last two episodes of season one or any of season two, let me know. But if the show couldn’t realize that Setrakian was the character most worth following, I didn’t feel it was worth watching.

Occasionally, a TV show or movie perhaps doesn’t realize a supporting character is more interesting the lead until later on. I’ll be writing something about The Knick before its season two premiere on Oct. 16, but Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Wallace) — a black surgeon who was at the top of his field in Europe, only to have his career stunted by severe racism in 1900s New York city — probably deserves his own series, rather than John Thackery (Clive Owen), a brilliant surgeon with a raging cocaine habit.

Maybe something similar happened with Sicario. Whether it was screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy) or director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners), perhaps the original thought was that FBI agent Kate Macer was the best character in this story. As the leader of a FBI SWAT team that handles kidnapping and hostage situations, she suddenly finds herself tabbed for a special ops team tasked with apprehending the head of a Mexican drug cartel.

Macer (Emily Blunt) quickly realizes she’s in way over her head, openly wondering why she was selected for this task force. Though she has tactical experience, she’s not the military operative that’s obviously suited for this mission. Adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) apparently picks her because she’s better than her job, has no family tying her down, and is obsessed with catching the drug lords kidnapping and killing illegal immigrants.

But Macer and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) almost immediately discern that something isn’t right and suspect this is a CIA operation. Those suspicions are raised even further when Graver and his team show utter disregard for the law or any sort of procedure — especially in Mexico, where they engage in a shootout with cartel thugs on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez with dozens of civilians in harm’s way.

It’s as if Graver wants to show her that the cases she works on reach far deeper and are much more complicated than she realizes. (Brolin plays his mansplaining with a charming, gum-chewing, dick-swinging confidence.) Macer is supposedly on the team because of her knowledge of the cartel’s operation in Arizona, but that never comes into play. Is she a pawn? Is she being used to keep this operation appear legitimate and avoid federal investigation? Why does Graver really need her?

That in itself could be the compelling mystery of Sicario. And for most of the movie, it looks like that’s how it will play out. Yet just like Graver and his fellow “adviser,” Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the story doesn’t have much use for Macer after a certain point and essentially discards her. It’s a damn shame because Blunt is doing great work here, showing the toughness she displayed in the vastly overlooked Edge of Tomorrow while also demonstrating both vulnerability (perhaps too much at times) and a sense of moral purpose that sets her apart from virtually everyone else surrounding her.

However, it eventually becomes all too clear that Alejandro is easily the most interesting character in this movie. When Macer first meets him, he’s a mysterious figure who doesn’t say much, but obviously knows what’s really going on. Is it because he has a connection to the cartels? Did he formerly work for them and is now an informant?

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We soon see that Alejandro is so much more than an adviser. At the very least, he’s an expert in interrogation and torture, having used unethical and inhuman means to extract information from one of the drug lord’s top associates. (There’s also an almost amusing scene in which he tortures another suspect for information by sticking his finger in the guy’s ear. Worst wet willy ever. Did he learn that in official agency training or as a member of a cartel?) Dick Cheney might love this guy… except we don’t know how he feels about immigrants.

Yet there appears to be a gentler side beneath the stoic, taciturn, bad-ass exterior. There are allusions throughout the story to Alejandro having lost something, which hint as to why he’s a part of this operation. He has a soft spot for Macer, perhaps because he can see that she shouldn’t have been brought into this. At one point, he saves her life (which also indicates that he’s been keeping an eye on her). But what are Alejandro’s motivations? Does he want to take over the cartel, as Macer suspects at one point?

When we finally learn Alejandro’s true reason for helping out the feds and lending his talents to the operation, it’s meant as a gut punch revelation meant to draw his character, as well as the entire story, into focus. I felt like standing up in the theater and yelling, “Why the hell isn’t that the movie?” It’s possible that Villenueve or the movie’s producers eventually asked the same question, because the last quarter of the film is completely hijacked by this development and Alejandro’s role in the story.

How can you spend virtually the entire movie centered on Macur and then push her aside for Alejandro? Even if we want to see him finish his storyline, as it’s the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying, it’s enough to make you wonder why we bother caring about Macur in the first place. Yes, she’s our entry into this world and the supposed innocent who learns the hard lesson that much darker, more sinister methods are being employed above her to battle the Mexican drug cartels.

That seemed to be the story that Sicario really wanted to tell. It aspires to be the new version of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which followed several characters and storylines to show how futile the war on drugs really was. With that movie now 15 years old, maybe the story was due for an update depicting how the cartels came into power and the lethal, tyrannical reign they hold over cities like Juarez. (One of Sicario‘s most gripping images shows mutilated bodies hanging from bridges and lamp posts for all to see.)

The intention of using a variety of characters to tell different angles of the story is there, most obviously with a Mexican police officer whose role isn’t made clear until the very end. But with a kid who wants to play soccer with him, you know bad things are in store for him. Then you have Macur’s thread, along with Graver’s. And, of course, Alejandro. Unfortunately, those storylines don’t tie together for Sicario the way they did in Traffic. Villenueve doesn’t seem to know which story he wants to tell and the entire movie ultimately suffers for that, along with a cast that deserved far better with their performances. It’s a huge disappointment.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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