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Emily Blunt's job takes her to a dark place in "Sicario."

Emily Blunt is on some kind of tear. We used to think of her as some proper English rose living among unthreatening romantic comedies, but that was before she turned herself into an action heroine in Edge of Tomorrow and proved her singing ability in Into the Woods. In her latest film, Sicario, she takes on the clipped, professional demeanor of an FBI agent and gives weight to one of the year’s best thrillers.

A title card informs us that the movie’s title is the Spanish word for “hitman.” Blunt plays Kate Macer, whom we first see leading a kidnapping response team on a house raid in Chandler, Ariz. A shotgun blast meant for her head instead reveals 42 corpses hidden in the house’s walls and attic, courtesy of a drug cartel in Sonora. Teased with the possibility of making a real dent in the international drug trade, Kate volunteers for an intra-agency task force headed by a CIA cowboy (Josh Brolin) and partnered with a Colombian “consultant” (Benicio del Toro) with his own ulterior motives. The force starts conducting paramilitary raids on the Mexican side of the border, and Kate freaks out at the lawlessness of law enforcement.

Blunt layers the role’s required toughness with amusement and gathering outrage at the men around her who refuse to tell her much about the group’s objectives and keep dragging her into situations where guys shoot at her. The script by Taylor Sheridan (who’s best known as an actor on TV’s Sons of Anarchy) is properly cynical about the War on Drugs, but the botched ending makes the cynicism feel somewhat cheap. The periodic cutaways to a moderately corrupt Mexican cop who gets swept up in the carnage (Maximiliano Hernández) don’t adequately humanize the collateral damage in the hunt for narcos. While it’s not unfeasible that the movie’s self-appointed good guys might use torture on cartel suspects, it is confusing, given that French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve previously made a whole movie about why torture doesn’t work (Prisoners).

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This is still easily the best and most accessible of Villeneuve’s English-language films, and it’s more effective than the similarly themed The Counselor or Traffic. The director conjures up great, sweaty intensity in the Arizona raid during the opening sequence, as well as during a shootout at a border checkpoint where Kate screams, “What the fuck are we doing?” while watching her guys perforate entire cars full of people. Even Kate’s drunken hookup with a Phoenix cop (Jon Bernthal) turns into a life-or-death situation. One of the few times the movie leaves Kate’s point of view is when the Colombian breaks off from the group in Mexico to pursue his own justice, which leads to a climactic confrontation with the Sonora cartel’s kingpin (played by Fort Worth’s own Julio Cedillo) that feels indelibly close to the dark heart of the endless war. The uneasy thrills that Sicario gives you are its proudest achievement.

 

[box_info]Sicario
Starring Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Rated R.[/box_info]

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