Watching Emily Blunt’s kidnapping specialist Kate Macer be talked into volunteering to assist on some patently shady cross-border operation near the start of Sicario, I was oddly reminded of a similar scene at the start of Aliens, where despite losing her entire crew in the previous installment, floating in space for 57 years, and having her daughter die in the meantime, Ellen Ripley needs only around two minutes of convincing to return to the fray. Macer doesn’t have the best of opening scenes either, which involves her discovering a whole army of corpses hidden in a suburban Arizona home by a drug baron, before a booby trap goes off, injuring her and maiming one of her team. Yet Macer is as ready as her kick-ass antecedent to throw caution and plausibility to the wind, happily donning the mantel of audience surrogate and taking unlikely decision after unlikely decision so we can be led ever further into the supposed intricacies of America’s war on drugs. Unfortunately, director Denis Villeneuve is incapable of putting together the same sort of thrillingly never-ending action sequences as James Cameron, marooning Sicario in the dubious borderland between serious analysis and dumb pleasure.
The government-sanctioned special team that Macer signs up for is led by the no-bullshit Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), neither of whom is forthcoming about who they actually work for. Macer soon finds herself whisked off with her new bosses to Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, where a cartel boss linked to the Arizona incident is to be snatched by the United States. The total disregard for jurisdictional conduct is obvious fuel for discussion further down the line, with numerous well-worn variants on “all bets are off,” “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and “it’s best not to ask questions” being parroted to such an exclamatory extent that any real-life moral complexity is soon drowned out. The remainder of the film jumps back and forth redundantly between increasingly shouty debates of this ilk and ever more questionable missions, as Graver and Alejandro are revealed to have an almost God-like grasp on affairs and the cost of fighting drugs is hammered home again and again.
The one saving grace of Sicario is the considerable talent of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who continually finds new, striking images to couch all the action in: breathtaking aerial shots that fittingly transform the border zone into some hugely elaborate model, the green-tinged night-vision shots that accompany the team taking over a cartel tunnel, the impenetrable sea of dust a bomb blast carries in its wake. Yet such atmospherics are stymied again and again by Villeneuve’s need to hold the audience’s hand, despite Blunt already having been given this job, with the camera repeatedly zeroing in on various details—Blunt’s face in a bank, a particular man at a bar, a Mexican policeman—that will soon become salient, a form of obvious telegraphing that does at least dovetail with the film’s heavy-handed approach to its subject matter.
Youth doesn’t even have striking images to impress with, its palette of visual ideas tipping its hat variously at Condé Nast Traveler, the sort of fashion photography that thinks naked old people are edgy, and the high-budget pop video, though it does have a vocabulary of bland truisms all of its own. Director Paolo Sorrentino’s second, painfully thin stab at an English-language film unfolds in a hyper-exclusive Swiss design hotel, where retired orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and his best friend, successful movie director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), are spending their holidays, which entail walking in the Alps, having massages, and invariably reminiscing about the good old days.
The mood is three parts whimsy, two parts self-congratulation, and one part melancholy, with this being the sort of film where Caine directing an orchestra of cowbells, two geriatric mobility machines bumping into another, and a naked Miss Universe getting into a Jacuzzi with our two geriatric heroes are all supposed to provoke belly laughs, wonder, or both. The pace is leaden and the acting overwrought, while the script contains such wonderful life wisdoms as “Emotions are all we have” and “When you’re young, everything looks close; when you’re old, everything looks far away.” After some nominal attempt to suggest that Caine’s fame and subsequent privilege might have come at a cost, the tenor soon returns to one of celebration, the ultimate message presumably being that rich, successful white people really do deserve to enjoy a bit of luxury and self-celebration in their old age.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13—24.