See It Instead
If you’re like me, you’re really looking forward to seeing the latest crime thriller, Sicario. If you’re also like me, it’s not playing anywhere within driving distance of you. What to do? See some of these excellent films, also about Mexican drug cartels, instead!
Kate (Emily Blunt) is a top notch FBI agent who is selected by the government to participate in a clandestine operation aimed at unseating a powerful drug cartel baron. Her handler (Josh Brolin) leads her deeper and deeper into a black-ops world where everyone, including her enigmatic squad leader (Benicio del Toro,) seems to have something to hide. When the mission turns out to be of dubious legality, Kate is caught between serving the law or make the kill.
The Serious Pick: Traffic (2000)
The effect of the drug trade is shown throw several vignettes, each shot in a distinct style, that follow the lives of people involved, from lowly distributors to high ranking officials. The stories of those who sell the drugs is mirrored by actions of those involved in catching and prosecuting drug crimes in the U.S.
Traffic is a tightly paced and evocative thriller, which manages to juggle several interconnected narratives, despite many of the characters having no actual interactions with each other. The scope of action is international in its implications, but always manages to remain intensely personal. It achieves this balance by having an extremely talented cast, including Benicio del Toro, Don Cheadle, and many more, and also through the guts and determination of director Steven Soderbergh who fought with several studios to keep his vision pure, and who even did much of the camerawork that led to the film’s visually striking presentation.
The Lighthearted Pick: Desperado (1995)
A simple mariachi (Antonio Banderas) goes on a revenge killling spree against the drug lord who killed his beloved and crippled his guitar playing hand. Along the way, he is aided by a reluctant informer (Steve Buscemi) and a fiery local book-store owner (Selma Hayek) as he battles professional assassins and an army of enforcers on his way to the top criminal, Bucho.
Robert Rodriguez’ Mariachi trilogy is a little like the story of the Goldilocks and the three bears: the first film, El Mariachi, is a cult favorite…but just a little too poor, suffering from a tiny budget and lack of star power. The final film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, is too rich, suffering from a bloated budget and jam packed with stars (like Johnny Depp) who take the focus away from the actual death dealing mariachi at the heart of the film. Desperado is just right, having a fine cast and just enough budget to tastefully blow things up every now and again. Hayek and Banderas have scintillating chemistry, and Buscemi revels in his smaller role, stealing almost every scene he is in. The action is great, the story is fun, and the film takes the time to explore the characters that inhabit the fictional border town of its setting…before filling said town full of bullet holes.
The Unconventional Pick: Sin Nombre (2009)
Two refugees, Sayra, a young woman fleeing Honduras with her family to America, and Casper, a lowly member of a Mexican street gang who must escape the vengeance of his former gang-mates, ride aboard a derelict train, headed for the U.S. border.
Shot in Mexico and featuring actual migrants as extras, Sin Nombre captures the hope and terror of immigrants who attempt the dangerous border crossing. The relatively inexperienced cast (the young lady who played Sayra had formal training but few roles, while Casper’s role was filled by a nation-wide casting call in Honduras) hardly shows, and the cinematography is captivating. The story is well executed, and the ending, perhaps fittingly, will haunt you long after you finish the film.