Take No Prisoners
Thrumming with a violent intensity, Denis Villeneuve’s latest mystery thriller Sicario pulls no punches in its assault on South American drug cartels.Ostensibly pitching Emily Blunt’s tough but comparatively naive FBI tac-agent as the focal point, it’s not long before we realise that director Villeneuve is only, cleverly, positing her as a rather confused viewpoint into a fractured world of clandestine black ops and vicious cartel crimes. The deeper she – and thereby we – are drawn into this world, the harder it is to turn away, no matter how dark things get; no matter how many lines are crossed. Sicario is genius in its sleight of hand, expertly shifting focus between the key players. Blunt may be headlining (getting solid lead gigs off the back of superb action work in Edge of Tomorrow), with Josh Brolin’s engagingly laid-back spook seemingly slotting into second place, but it’s actually the man at the back of the room who you should keep your eyes on.Benicio Del Toro brings his A-game to this piece, brandishing ordinance with the same precision as in the underrated The Way of the Gun but bringing a depth of character which few projects have afforded him the opportunity to embrace. Villeneuve not only brings the best out of his great leads, but he also brings us a visually and aurally striking piece, setting the stunning images of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins against the oppressive beats of Johann Johannsson’s tremendous score, which literally adds a near-continuous heartbeat to the entire film. Taut and almost unyieldingly tense, there’s no wasted time here; every scene is measured, every shot adeptly framed. And whilst you may think it’s heading this way, it’s not. It’s heading that way, and it always was.
Picture QualityThe 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation, framed in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 widescreen, lives up to expectations, providing a faithful reflection of Roger Deakins’s trademark visuals – stunning as always. Detail is frequently jaw-dropping, not just on the closer shots, which observe the finest skin and hair imperfections, and clothing weaves, but also on the broader sequences that take in immense texture and layering with every little nuance on display.
Sicario steps up to the plate with a faithful, cinematic rendition that promotes all the wonderful visuals in all their glory.
Although contrast runs a little hot sometimes – intentionally so – and almost yellow-dominated on occasion, the colour scheme remains well preserved and black levels are strong and rich, affording some outstanding sunset shots – positively jaw-dropping. There are a few instances where stylistic (arguably narrative-driven) choices rob the image of almost all of the strong qualities raved about above, like when we go into night-vision mode towards the tail-end of the piece, but beyond these ‘choices’, there’s nothing visually troubling of note, making the film demo material.
Sound QualityCas Harlow reviewed the audio using a standard 5.1-channel setup - The audio track is also outstanding promoting the tremendous score (Oscar-deserving) by Johann Johannsson at the forefront, but delivering strong dialogue and diverse effects too; a perfected marriage which makes for demo – and arguably reference – material from start to finish. Dialogue remains well-prioritised across the fronts and centre channels; clear and coherent throughout the piece, whilst the effects bring the wide-open-but-surprisingly-claustrophobic sequences to life with wonderfully atmospheric coverage.
Powerful and precise, the more distinctive effects elements – yes, we’re talking gunshots here – crack out with deafening thunder, whilst explosions will test the structural integrity of your home viewing environment. Prioritisation is outstanding, with helicopters hovering behind, then whipping across and over you, expertly navigating the channels. That score, though, which provides a genuine heartbeat to the piece, provides near-consistent LFE rumble and gets right under your skin; the hairs raised on your arms ready for the next tense conflict that awaits just around the corner. Outstanding.
Sicario's Dolby Atmos soundtrack is as stunning as the cinematography.
Steve Withers reviewed the audio using a 7.2.4-channel Dolby Atmos setup - The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is a near perfect example of how to effectively use the added freedom the format provides to enhance the viewing experience. From the opening shots, as the percussive score slowly builds, there is a sense of growing dread. The mix puts you right inside a SWAT van as it approaches a target's house, adding to the feeling of building tension, and an explosion early on will blast through your lounge. The brief moments of gunfire are suitably realistic, with a physical kick that you would get from genuine ordinance and an audible sense of bullets hitting bodies and walls. This soundtrack is all about dynamic range, going from silence to chaos in a heartbeat and creating a sonic impact that is highly effective.
A firefight inside a series of tunnels is especially impressive as the added overhead speakers completely immerse you in the claustrophobic environment; shots echo around you and sand seeps down from above your head. There are also a number of excellent helicopter flyovers, always a great effect for a sound designer to add to a mix and something that Atmos is especially good at representing. However amongst all this the dialogue is clear and centred whilst the score weaves in and out of the mix like a heartbeat, adding to the tension in an incredibly effective manner. The film also manages to add plenty of subtle atmospheric touches and a scene where birds fly from the front left to right speakers via the front overhead speakers is very effective. The ultimate result is a soundtrack that perfectly matches the already stunning picture and is demo quality.
Steelbook ExtrasAlthough not packed with supplemental material, Sicario’s UK Blu-ray release promotes the same solid quartet of Featurettes that adorned the US counterpart, mostly running around the quarter-hour mark, and looking at everything from the visuals to the characters; the score to the story origins, and basically covering all of the bases.
With a solid selection of background pieces in the supplementals section, Sicario’s package is further embellished by a distinctive steelbook design.
Although not really providing the key elements that steelbook collectors would ideally want on likely almost all of their collection – glossy visuals and embossing – Sicario’s steelbook kind of suits the distinctive gold/yellow imagery, with a skull-based tattoo-like front image, and a background shot of Emily Blunt navigating a tunnel in a poster promo image that, as far as I can find, doesn’t actually appear in the movie itself. It’s well-designed and distinctive, and the matte finish works for the colour scheme adopted (although there’s no argument that some embossing might have added a nicely textured layer to the tattoo style of the skull).
Blu-ray VerdictThe measure of Sicario’s supremacy is its ability to leave you pondering broader questions (much like Villeneuve’s Prisoners, only on a different scale). It doesn’t just take you on a taut, tense ride. It doesn’t just take you to a rather dark, uncomfortable place. It makes you wonder about the necessity of it all. It makes you wonder what’s right and what’s wrong in this dark realm where there appear to be no rules. And in a sea of counterpart Hollywood features that trade unequivocally in black and white; light and dark, Sicario posits the notion of dark vs. darker, and leaves you equal parts drawn to, horrified by, and yearning for more of, this murky world of grey.
This striking mystery thriller is a cut above its peers and yet another unmissable sleeper gem.
With an outstanding video presentation and utterly spectacular Dolby Atmos track, as well as a quartet of solid extras, all encased in an impressively distinctive steelbook package, this is surely one of the first must-have releases of the year.
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