(director: Denis Villeneuve; screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Joe Walker; music: Johann Johannsson; cast: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio Del Toro ( Alejandro), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Victor Garber (Dave Jennings), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie Wayne), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Raoul Trujillo (Rafael), Julio Cesar Cedillo (Fausto Alarcon), Bernardo Saracino (Manuel Diaz), Maximiliano Hernández (Silvio); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Basil Iwanyk/Edward L. McDonnell/Molly Smith/Thad Luckinbill/Trent Luckinbill; Lionsgate; 2015)

“It examines the Mexican drug cartels and how corrupting they are and how ruthlessly they operate. The best scenes are the most brutal.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title means hitman in Spanish. The French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve(“Enemy”/”Prisoners”/”Next Door”) helms this gripping thriller, with a message that you must fight fire with fire if you expect to make inroads on drug trafficking. It’s tautly written by the actor Taylor Sheridan. It tells about America’s failing War on Drugs, as it examines the Mexican drug cartels and how corrupting they are and how ruthlessly they operate. The best scenes are the most brutal.

Sicario opens with an FBI raid on a Chandler, Arizona, tract house owned secretly by Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino), a big-wheel in the Mexican cartel operating in America. In the FBI raid in the hideout, they shockingly find over 40 plastic corpses stuffed in the walls. The raid was led by FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Since this signals that the Mexican cartel is operating in the States, a secretive special task force, with wide powers as authorized by Washington, is assigned to wipe out, legally or illegally, the unknown cartel biggie in Mexico. The straight-shooter Kate is recruited to join the team headed by the mysterious, not by the book, sassy operator Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He tells the confused Kate, who wants to know what’s going down, to chill and just soak it in. The even more mysterious and more violent Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a psychopathic enforcer, works for Matt and after torturing and eliminating cartel members, Kate catches on she’s being used but can’t do squat about it.

The narrative involves multiple trips back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, as the agents make sure the high-ranking cartel boss Diaz is called back to Mexico after his bank account is frozen for money-laundering. In Mexico, they are sure he will lead them to the big boss (Julio Cesar Cedillo).

Villeneuve manages to keep things tense at all times and stages one great suspense set-piece after another. The best might be the traffic jam at the border that makes things hairy for the regular Americans heading back home across the border and also the special task force, returning with a valuable cartel member under arrest.

Great photography by Roger Deakins, an eerie musical score by Johann Johannsson and an emotionally impactful performance by Blunt make this one of the year’s best films.

REVIEWED ON 11/20/2015  GRADE: A-