When a film is in competition at Cannes, there is a fair chance that it will be a groundbreaking masterpiece, and a fair chance that it will be a catastrophe –which can be almost as gratifying. But there’s also a chance that it will be somewhere in the middle: solid, admirable, nothing revelatory. Sicario fits that particular bill. A hard-edged, politically tinged thriller about the lengths the US intelligence services will go to to bring down a Mexican drug cartel, Denis Villeneuve’s film has been well-researched and lucidly plotted by Taylor Sheridan, an actor-turned-screenwriter who appeared in Sons of Anarchy. It has several white-knuckle action sequences shot with a steady hand and a painterly eye by Roger Deakins. But its deliberate pacing and simple characterisation make it seem as if it never quite gets going. And there is nothing in it you haven’t seen before.
The most notable aspect of Sicario – Mexican slang for ‘hitman’, apparently – is that it gives a starring role to Emily Blunt. She plays Kate, an FBI agent who specialises in raiding crooks’ safe houses in Arizona. The raid that opens the film must be the most dramatic of her career. In a set piece that is tense, then funny, then exciting, then horrifying, Kate proves her mettle, but two of her fellow agents are killed. Later that day, she is called into her boss’s office. A task force is being set up which will target the drug lord behind the agents’ deaths. The leader of the task force, Matt (Josh Brolin), is a laidback flip-flop-wearing joker who won’t stop grinning – but he is never friendly enough to specify who he works for. His dapper right-hand man, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), is even more vague about his credentials – and he doesn’t do any grinning at all.
Nonetheless, Kate agrees to tag along as they hop back and forth across the US-Mexican border, tracking down the kingpin’s associates, and interrogating them using methods which may not be entirely legal. She believes that they’re doing something positive, but she isn’t too sure what it is or why they need her to do it. “You’re asking me how a how a watch works,” Alejandro says in response to her enquiries. “For now, just keep an eye on the time.” He’s a cool dude, that Alejandro.
Matt is cool, too. When Brolin and Del Toro are in the same scene, you feel that any drug lord within 50 paces would surrender on the spot, overcome by the sheer force of their old-school manliness. Kate, in contrast, is presented as a frustrated goody two-shoes who is repeatedly out-manoeuvred and outgunned by the men around her. This has more to do with her youth and her rank than her gender, but it is a shame that in a female-led action film, she doesn’t get the kick-ass Clarice Starling/Ellen Ripley moment she deserves, and she ends up being side-lined while the good ol’ boys take care of business. It’s hard to accept, too, that someone in Kate’s line of work would be so shocked by Matt and Alejandro’s rule-breaking. It certainly won’t shock the audience.
Along with Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, the film Sicario most resembles is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but that was unquestionably Jessica Chastain’s show. Blunt’s character here is almost surplus to requirements, which is a clever bit of wrong-footing, but which leaves the project smelling unpleasantly of testosterone. Perhaps if Kate had been in the driving seat, Sicario might have seemed more daring than the sturdy thriller it actually is.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.