***Plot spoilers avoided***
Released to very positive reviews, this film from flavour-of-the-month director Denis Villeneuve caught my attention at the time. I waited until it was cheap to buy on DVD and bought a copy. I have just got around to watching it today, so here are my thoughts, fresh from the packet.
From the very start, the opening is action-packed, beautifully shot, and doesn’t waste time on preambles or scene setting. I like that. FBI action-woman Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a team of SWAT officers and FBI agents on a raid, taking on Mexican criminals operating in Arizona. She’s at the top of her game, backed up by her steadfast and reliable partner Reggie. (Daniel Kaluuya) So far, so good, and a very promising beginning.
Plucky Kate comes to the attention of a multi-agency team tasked with taking the war against drugs into Mexico itself. She and her partner are asked to volunteer to join this team, and the by-the-book agent leaps at the chance. This mixed bag of US Marshals, Sheriffs, spooky agents and special forces troops are set on a mission to extricate a gang boss from Juarez, and need the FBI to join in too.
Exciting and often tense scenes follow, with Kate becoming rapidly concerned about the long-term aims of the team, and their flouting of due process, and rules of engagement. She is especially worried about the carefree and smooth talking Matt Graver, (Josh Brolin, laconic as usual) and his shadowy right-hand man Alejandro.(Benicio del Toro on his usual top form)
Things increase in tension, as the team decides to operate clandestinely in Mexico, outside of their actual jurisdiction. The action moves up a gear, and we are soon left wondering who is really a friend, and if the enemy really is the enemy. Action sequences are tightly managed, with the usual crop of stealth helicopters, CCTV surveillance, satellite tracking, night-vision goggles, heat-seeking cameras, and a lot of looking at maps. On the plus side, they are also lovingly filmed, and feel very believable. But straight-talking Kate remains worried about her colleagues, as well as their methods, and she never feels trusted, or really treated as part of the team.
I don’t sound that excited, do I? Unlike many that gave this rave reviews, perhaps I have seen too many films in my long life. Or maybe too many similar films.
US crime agencies taking on the drug lords.
A potentially renegade agent leading an unorthodox team on an operation that may or may not be sanctioned.
A straight-laced lead female agent who is not comfortable with her new job, lives alone after a divorce, is stressed out, not looking after herself, and worrying her partner.
Sneering Mexican drug lords living in mansions and dealing out brutal punishments.
Corrupt Mexican and American police officers, seduced by the huge payments available.
A loyal and devoted partner who is worried about the woman, and will stick by her, whatever happens.
A suggestion that those fighting crime have to be as ruthless and cruel as those committing it.
Blunt received high praise for her role, and she plays it well enough. It may not be her fault that we have seen the same thing so many times before. Brolin seems to insist upon playing Brolin, whatever the part, and the villains are telegraphed and typecast as such. Locations feel authentic and suitably gritty, but nothing anyone has not seen already, dozens of times.
So what’s good about it? Is it worth a couple of hours of your time?
Yes, it is. For one thing, the cinematography is superb. This film was nominated for an Oscar for it, and you can see why, all the time. It is a film-maker’s film, and that separates it from so many seen previously. And then there is the incomparable Benicio del Toro. I confess to always liking him, even when he is playing much the same part, something he does all the time. He is heavier in this film, and looks tired, worn out by his quest for revenge, and his fight for justice against the gangsters. Alejandro doesn’t play by any rules, and it is always a great scene, when he is in it.
If you have never seen a film like this before, you will undoubtedly enjoy it. If like me, you have, then look for the good bits, admire the way it is shot, and keep watching Benicio. There is a sequel on the way too. Let’s hope del Toro is in it.
Here’s a trailer.