A young FBI agent gets swept up in a CIA Mexican drug war operation on the wrong side of the border.

‘In the Mexican drug war there’s no such thing as an easy thrill or neat resolve in the bloodletting.’

We’re in the desert looking down on a city from a hilltop, and it’s not pretty. This is not the image of green-fringed America suburbia but some anaemic sun blistered middle-of the-middle-of-nowhere, scattered with boxy lookalike homes. It’s actually Chandler, Arizona - but for Sicario’s battered heroes it’s a place where hope comes to die.

The long arm of US law enforcement intrudes on this vista; a squad spread out in an attack formation appear out of the heat haze and dust. Draped in their best battle gear, they advance on their target in that studied crouch we know from so many other movies. Here, they look like giant black bi-pedal beetles. These are an FBI hostage response team led by Kate (Emily Blunt) and they’re here to kick doors, take names and rescue the unfortunate.

Once inside a near empty house with a matt finish that suggests a close encounter with excreta – the FBI dispatch the bad guys so there’s no one left to talk. What Kate and co. find is bodies wrapped in plastic hidden inside the walls. Kate and her tough buddies like Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) react like regular folks. They step outside and lose their lunch. Kate is enraged; she wants payback and answers.

‘Benicio Del Toro gets all the good lines.’

A shadowy force -  the kind that occupies the frontline in the drug war - comes forward led by Josh Brolin’s faux-jocular and disarmingly-named Matt, claiming to be a Defence Department contractor. The horrors of Chandler are the work of a Mexican drug cartel it seems, and Matt’s group could use an earnest, righteous, courageous, by-the-book gal like Kate.

There’s an operation afoot. It means crossing to the south of the border. The plan is a baiting game. Like Kate, we must piece everything together from small portions of clues as the movie races along from one set piece of mayhem to another.

The director is Denis Villeneuve, and, as with earlier pictures Polytechnique, and Incendies, he draws a distinction between action and violence. Here there’s no such thing as an easy thrill or neat resolve in the bloodletting. The imagery – naked corpses hanging from a highway overpass, bagged heads – has the hideous familiarity of warzone reportage which, rightfully so, is hard to paint as fun action movie fodder.

Still, Sicaro wants to meet genre half-way. It’s masterfully suspenseful – there’s one brilliantly attenuated scene in a monster traffic jam where the US forces must pick off drug assassins amongst civilians in order to survive – but like everything else in the movie, it leaves a cruel knot in its aftermath.

‘A howl of pain, grim and heartbreaking with only fly specks of wit for relief.’

Matt’s idea is to cross the border at El Paso into Juarez and grab the brother of cartel boss Manuel Díaz (Bernardo Saracino). The theory is that Diaz will attempt a rescue and then he can be caught.

For those who respect the sovereignty of foreign states, covet career and hold to their hearts the probity of procedure, that’s an unwanted thought. Still, Kate’s superiors suggest it’s a good idea she ride along. What’s her role? “Watch and learn”, Matt suggests like he’s CIA channelling Yoda. Pressed for more info he advises Kate that the goal is to, “dramatically over-react”.

Most of Matt’s squad are anonymous but Alejandro is a stand-out and not only because he’s played by Benicio Del Toro. There’s no one on hand to explain who he is, where he is from and what he is doing. Del Toro is the kind of actor who doesn’t need words to convey a grim past; he wearily stares down Kate’s entreaties and he gets all the good lines: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do.” Take that as both warning and artistic mission statement.

The smooth reassurances gleefully mobilised by action moviemakers everywhere are entirely absent here. Filling that void is a sense of outrage and irony. The script, by Taylor Sheridan, has a mystery plot and the big reliable engine of a perilous undertaking; but the conventions are scrambled and the story’s many riddles are left unexplained leaving Kate and us in the dark.

This isn’t the cool politics of Traffic or the metaphor of No Country for Old Men. It’s a howl of pain, grim and heartbreaking with only fly specks of wit for relief. The cast inhabit their roles with a mix of terror and resolve.

The film is easy to admire; Roger Deakins’ photography evokes loss and a sense of place in the way he captures dust dancing in the shafts of light in a darkened room or the way he makes aerial shots look like x-rays. 

Central to the films story is the way that Kate – nominally the hero – is pushed aside as the plot progresses. This presents Blunt with a serious actor’s challenge. She has to make stoic resolve and indignity look interesting and largely she succeeds. Like a Hitchcock hero her virtues make her vulnerable to predators.

The irony here is that it’s US shadow forces and their unlawful allies who are the string pullers here - out to score a killing in the drug war. The title is a clue to what this movie is and where it is going. It means hitman.

Sicario is out now.

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2 hours 1 min
In Cinemas 18 September 2015,