Supposedly based on a true story about the first American born drug lord to operate out of Mexico, American Sicario opens with Erik Vasquez (Philippe A Haddad) - drug lord to be - working for the Feliz Family - Roberto (Maurice Compte) and his brother Juan (Johnny Rey Diaz) - ensuring the safe passage of their drugs across the border into the USA. But Erik has bigger plans than being stuck as a henchman his whole life and, against the objections of Juan, convinces Roberto that he can double the quantity of their drugs being trafficked through a part of the border where the Drug Enforcement Agency is nowhere to be seen. Wrong! The DEA, in the guise of Agent Monica Wells (Maya Stojan) is on to Erik and are determined to make him play piggy in the middle.
But Erik figures he’s smart enough and determined enough to play both sides at the same time and moves ahead with his plans to take over the Feliz Family operations. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or should I say hacienda?) Erik’s girlfriend, Gloria (Cali Morales) is pregnant, and her father Pedro (Danny Trejo) has decided to come and stay for the birth of his grandchild. The only trouble is, Erik and Pedro don’t exactly see eye to eye. Throw in some of the local Mexican constabulary who are showing an interest in Erik, the suggestion of disloyalty within Erik’s own crew and a whole lot of guns in the hands of everyone including Gloria, and you begin to see just how many ingredients make up this volatile recipe that is threatening to boil over at every turn.
Sicario is the Spanish word for assassin or hitman which doesn’t really apply to Erik, although, throughout the film, he does manage to amass a pretty impressive body count. But he’s not really a hit man so the title seems a bit out of place. For most movie goers, the word is associated with Denis Villeneuve’s very good 2015 movie that uses that title, or with Stefano Sollima’s lesser 2018 sequel (but probably not with the Venezuelan Sicario made in 1994 by Joseph Noboa). For me, the title American Sicario brought Villeneuve’s film to mind and as odious as comparisons are, this film is not in the same league as it; the writing, the direction and the performances – all solid in their own way – simply don’t have the complexity that the title evokes and certainly doesn’t have the same scale of budget. But to be fair, one should take a film on its own terms and in that sense, there’s still a lot to like about it.
First time feature film director R.J Collins and horror/thriller/action screenwriter Rich Ronat (While We Sleep) deliver some compelling character dilemmas and some engaging action sequences although the narrative generally offers nothing we haven’t seen before. Haddad (whose previous experience is mostly television and short films) is a real presence on the screen; he’s a big guy with a gregarious personality so the violence that erupts within him often takes up by surprise. His performance is nicely counterpointed by Compte as his ‘frenemy’ Roberto whose outbursts of violence come as no surprise at all.
Morales as Erik’s girlfriend Gloria is also very watchable, moving easily from affectionate lover to hard-arsed, no-nonsense killer, finding a really entertaining, compelling ambiguity that lets her stand on her own two feet in a film where the women (especially DEA Agent Wells) are scarce and mostly undeveloped. But none of them have the depth of character development to elevate them from the same sorts of cyphers that we always find in this kind of movie.
The real disappointment, though, is Danny Trejo who is mostly wasted on the sidelines of the story. For a good two thirds of the movie, we’re itching for him to get up from the table and cut loose with a bit of good old Machete action but, sadly, even when he answers the call to action his character Pedro is unremarkable in the way he lends his trigger finger to Erik and the other good-bad-guys’ in their fight with the bad-good-guys and the bad-bad-guys. It’s hard not to see this kind of casting as serving the marketing campaign more than the character and the narrative of the film.
Where the story runs aground is in the tail end of the third act. No spoilers here, but there’s a marked shift in the tone and pace of the film that, far from delivering the kind of final scenes we might be hoping for, ends not with a bang but a whimper. At this point it might have the potential to pull a tragedy out of its sleeve but, unfortunately, there’s no such luck. If, indeed, this is based on a true story, maybe the end remains faithful to that truth at the expense of the drama. Nevertheless, despite its third act problems, the film has a stylish look and Collins finds a real energy in many of the action sequences which are mostly well staged.
It’s nicely shot by cinematographer Pascal Combes-Knoke and Scott Adderton’s editing gives the film a good pace and some nice narrative counterpoints. It’s not a film that will change the genre and, allowing for its struggle to get out from under the idea that it’s a ‘Sicario’ movie, or its strong themes of family and loyalty that too often end up feeling like pale echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), it’s an entertaining and sometimes fun hundred and one minutes that hopefully won’t have you reaching for the remote.