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Welcome to Narcoland. Regardless of the intentions of the film-makers, such movies trade in much of the same imagery and references. There will be torture scenes, photographs of missing people and shots of mutilated corpses hanging from bridges — or, in the case of Room 164, a long and very macabre interview in which a hooded hitman describes his misdeeds in minute and grisly detail.

The films all portray Mexico as a setting for violence and terror on the grandest and most grotesque scale. The film is both a revenge story and a study in corruption. Given the machismo that generally surrounds such movies, it was a smart move to make the main protagonist a female.

One of the first images of Kate is of her vomiting. She has just led a kidnap response team which has bulldozed its way into a cartel house not far from Phoenix. They have to mirror their antagonists. Sicario uses Mexico in the same way as old Sam Peckinpah Westerns. There is no proper law enforcement. The Mexicans are depicted in very superficial fashion.

The other Mexican characters tend to be gun-toting traffickers or heavies, swathed in tattoos. What stops the film stalling is the full-blooded ingenuity with which the Canadian director Villeneuve stages the action set-pieces. Whether in the bravura early shoot-out during a huge traffic jam at the border, the night-vision chase sequence of the authorities pursuing their quarry through maze-like tunnels or the raids on cartel bases, the director is always able to crank up the tension.

She is shot at, nearly throttled to death, bullied and intimidated and yet never gives up. The English-born actress is emerging as an unlikely action-movie star.

She has some of the same qualities as a young Sigourney Weaver, a combination of toughness and sensitivity. Graver will chuckle away as a Mexican gang member is tortured in front of him. His team look and dress more like vigilante members of ZZ Top than conventional law enforcement officials. He is a Colombian who appears to have been a lawyer but now has very good reasons to hold a violent grudge against the Mexican drug leaders.

Occasionally, the jingoism here verges on the offensive. The lives of the Mexicans are cheap. The Americans only seem concerned about what is going on south of the border because the violence is moving close to them. Villeneuve barely stops to explore the stories behind the victims of the drug wars. At the same time, there is an incongruous strain of sentimentality with continual references to family relationships.

Cartel leaders and cops alike are shown sitting down with their kids for meals, seemingly oblivious to the suffering and destruction that they enable to continue. Sicario may leave an unpleasant taste but it is a slick, accomplished thriller. Villeneuve invokes memories of William Friedkin and Michael Mann movies both in the way he handles action and his attention to character.

He is portraying a world turned upside down. It refers to the killers in ancient times who used to hunt down invading Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. The central irony is that the lines between the cartels and their American antagonists grow more and more blurred. The most vicious killers we see here actually come from north of the border. Denis Villeneuve, 121 mins Starring: You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.

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