French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve made an impressive English-language debut in 2013 with the nihilistic thriller Prisoners starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Before he takes charge of the sequel to Blade Runner, the talented director dazzles with this edge-of-seat assault on unbitten nails, glimpsing America’s war on drugs through the eyes of a ballsy FBI agent, who is naive about the full extent of her government’s covert activities.
Sicario, which translates as hit man in Spanish, is tautly paced and expertly scripted by Taylor Sheridan, who sidesteps glib solutions to a complex global epidemic.
Instead, he skilfully weaves together sinewy subplots involving morally flawed characters on both sides of the Mexican border, building up a richly detailed picture of the blurred lines between authorities and the traffickers.
Desperation drips like rivulets of sweat from every expertly crafted frame and Villeneuve heightens our discomfort with thrillingly orchestrated action set pieces including a mesmerising finale that exposes sins under the cover of darkness using night vision and thermal-imaging cameras.
At the blackened heart of the film is a tour-de-force performance from British actress Emily Blunt, whose steely-nerved heroine might have to sacrifice more than her idealism in the crucible of machismo and political double-dealing.
She plays Kate Macer, part of the FBI’s Special Weapons and Tactics team, who are at the forefront of the war against drugs on American soil.
Flanked by her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), Kate storms a safe house and uncovers dozens of rotting corpses.
Soon after, a government agent named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) asks Kate to join his top-secret task force, which intends to cripple the cartel fronted by Rafael (Raoul Trujillo) from the top down.
Haunted by the loss of men under her command, Kate willingly signs up and she heads to El Paso for her briefing, where she learns that she will be venturing on to Mexican soil.
“What’s our objective?” asks Kate.
“To dramatically overreact,” tartly replies Matt.
A Colombian former prosecutor (Benicio Del Toro) with a personal vendetta joins the task force.
Bullets fly and Kate’s conscience is spattered in blood as she witnesses first-hand shocking brutality in violation of the laws she vowed to uphold.
Sicario gradually tightens the screws on frayed nerves, reaching a crescendo with the extraction of an informant from Ciudad Juarez.
“Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys,” one of the characters tells Kate, stoking her paranoia and ours.
Blunt is terrific in a physically and emotionally demanding role, clashing with Brolin’s cold and pragmatic leader, who believes the means always justify an end that is favourable to US interests.
Johann Johannsson’s atmospheric soundtrack pants and growls like a caged beast, creating a furious tempo that Villeneuve matches with flourishes of directorial brio.
THE WALK (PG)
Directors frequently treat the 3D and IMAX 3D formats as an afterthought to bolster box-office takings rather than a powerful tool in the filmmaking armament.
In the last five years, only The Life Of Pi, Gravity and Everest have harnessed the eye-popping technology with genuine purpose and elan, and set our pulses racing in the process.
Robert Zemeckis, Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump and the Back To The Future series, joins that elite club with his dramatisation of Philippe Petit’s incredible walk along a wire strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.
Harnessing state-of-the-art digital trickery, Zemeckis places us on that wire with the French daredevil and induces a palpable, stomach-churning sense of vertigo as Petit walks across the divide, more than 400 metres above the early morning bustle of Lower Manhattan.
“Don’t look down,” Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) instructs one of his accomplices with a twinkle in his eye.
We wish we could do the same, but Zemeckis’ swooping camera offers a bird’s-eye view of New York from below and above the wire.
Philippe hones his circus skills on the streets of the French capital, where he meets his beautiful busker Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). A newspaper article about the construction of the World Trade Center fires Philippe’s imagination and he concocts a hare-brained scheme to traverse the 140 feet of air between the two buildings.
Circus ringmaster Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley) helps Philippe to prepare for the physical rigours, despite serious misgivings about the perilous endeavour.
“What you’re doing – I may not understand it but it’s something beautiful,” Rudy confesses tenderly.
Philippe subsequently flies to the Big Apple with Annie, official photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) and Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), who is afraid of heights.
The wire walker adds Americans to the team, including inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), who works on the 82nd floor of the south tower.
The accomplices divide and simultaneously break into the two towers to secure a wire under the cover of darkness so the daredevil can begin his record-breaking attempt as the sun rises.
As a thrilling, visceral spectacle, The Walk is on a sure footing.
Alas, as a piece of storytelling, the film frequently stumbles and fails to replicate the nerve-shredding tension of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man On Wire.
Gordon-Levitt affects a comical
cod-French accent as the ringmaster
of this illegal escapade, bookmarking each stage of the plan with effusive narration from atop the Statue of Liberty.
Supporting characters are sketched in perfunctory detail, nudging along the linear narrative to its heart-stopping conclusion when one man tests his resolve against the sickening, relentless pull of gravity.