by NEVIL GIBSON
Like heaven and Earth or black and white, the borderlands between the United States and Mexico depict opposites —
the contrast between the rule of law and the lack of it.
Film-makers have long been fascinated by this as a place where civilisation starts and ends.
One of the greatest cinema sequences is the opening scene in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). In a single tracking shot, lasting three and a half minutes, a convertible passes through a Mexican border town before exploding and killing the occupants, while another couple, played by Charlton Heston and Vivien Leigh, are also crossing into the United States on their honeymoon. Heston is a Mexican detective investigating drug crimes.
About six decades later, little has changed. Mexico is still the nightmare to the American dream, where life is cheap and profits high from illicit narcotics.
The Mexican drug war has claimed around 160,000 lives over the past decade as authorities battle with various so-called cartels.
Hollywood got into the action with Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar winning Traffic (2000), in which Benicio del Toro takes on a hellish, lawless world of corruption south of the border, and rich Americans demand their addictions.
This was a tough film for its time, but in retrospect has become almost benign compared with the ugly realities
Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012) and Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (2013) brought the story more up to date, if much less successfully, with the focus on the demand side of drug trafficking.
In Savages, del Toro turns to the other side as a psychotic cartel enforcer up against John Travolta’s crooked drug agency investigator.
In Sicario (Lionsgate/Roadshow), del Toro is even more deceptive as a former cartel chief-turned-agent for the CIA, which is running a covert war with the discreet blessing of the FBI.
The first riveting sequence echoes that of Welles’ as a convoy of black wagons races through the busy border crossing at El Paso into the war zone city of Juarez, seizes and puts in custody a drug chief, and returns, only to be caught in a huge traffic jam.
The ensuing shootout sets a high barrier for the action to come, which centres on an FBI officer (Emily Blunt), who is keen to avenge the death of colleagues that occurred during a raid on a booby-trapped den. She soon realises she is on the team, run by del Toro and her mysterious new boss (Josh Brolin), only to provide a vestige of legality.
Here the narrative runs into trickier ground as it balances the moral questions of the lines between right and wrong with the overriding purpose of carrying out missions that get results by whatever means.
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is well used to handling complexity — his exploration of Middle East strife, Incendies, is nothing else — while Prisoners (2013) tackles the perils of revenge.
Sicario does not provide solutions, or even ask the right questions.
Instead it’s an action show in the tradition of Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down, with a job to be done and completed.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 16 (graphic violence and content that may disturb); 121 minutes.