Release Date(s)2015 (March 1, 2016)
Studio(s)Black Label/Thunder Road (Lionsgate)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: C-
[Editor’s Note: As Ultra HD Blu-ray is a new format, much is yet to be settled in terms of establishing a proper display calibration baseline for evaluating UHD content. What follows is our best attempt to offer specific impressions on the format’s A/V quality improvements given those constraints. Note that the display used for this review is Samsung’s UN65JS9500, which is compliant with the full HDR10/Rec.2020 “Ultra HD Premium” specification, driven by Samsung’s UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.]
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a hard-charging FBI agent who, with her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and their team, has been working to take down members of a Mexican drug cartel in Phoenix, Arizona. Despite their best efforts, however, they seem to be having little effect. After a gruesome discovery is made during a raid on a cartel hideout, Kate is selected by her superiors to join a Department of Defense task force, led by Matt Garver (Josh Brolin), that intends to bring in the big guns and take the fight over the border to hit the cartel where it hurts. Kate is eager to participate initially, but becomes frustrated when Matt is less than forthcoming with the details of the operation. The situation grows only more mysterious when Kate meets his Matt’s partner, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who’s clearly a foreign national and a dangerous soldier in the drug war. Kate soon begins to suspect that she’s being used by these two men, though it’s unclear why. Regardless, she’s determined to see the operation through to its end… whatever the personal cost might be.
Sicario is a terrific film, right up until the moment it isn’t. The cast is excellent across the board, with del Toro in particularly giving a wonderfully restrained and effective performance. Emily Blunt is also quite good as the film’s lead, which surprised me. It’s not that she isn’t a capable actor, it’s that this isn’t the kind of role you’d expect her to really shine in. Blunt manages the neat trick of making her character both strong and entirely credible, but it’s that very success that ultimately makes the film so frustrating. The story goes off track a bit in the third act in a way that betrays her performance. Macer’s actions start to feel naïve and out of character – contradictory to everything we’ve learned about her to that point. The film takes this strong, if somewhat war-weary, female agent and gradually breaks her down until she’s a brittle shell. It’s an interesting choice from a dramatic standpoint, but it feels forced somehow. Still, the film’s direction, editing, music, and cinematography work beautifully for much of its running time, conspiring to build a simmering tension that really energizes the slow-building narrative. Sicario is a fascinating film that’s well worth your time – just be prepared to leave it feeling frustrated by its denouement. Kate Macer’s character arc is not a satisfying one.
Sicario was captured digitally in ARRI Raw format (at 3.4K resolution) using ARRI Alexa XT cameras and was finished as a 4K DI. Lionsgate’s Ultra HD Blu-ray was mastered directly from this source and is presented here in the original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. From the film’s opening shot, you can tell almost immediately that you’re looking at native 4K. A tremendous amount of fine detail is visible in the image and it’s all effortlessly rendered – it’s just there if you look for it, without ever calling attention to itself. The result is a wonderful sense of deep space and dimensionality within the image. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ canny framing, the way he plays with light and shadow, and his delicate color timing choices combine to create an exquisite sense of mood and atmosphere that the Ultra HD image renders to near perfection. There’s an amazing shot (at 53:10) of buses driving into the breaking dawn that really shows off what this format is capable of. The only flaw in the image is the occasional bit of subtle color banding that results from converting ARRI Raw’s 12-bit color to the 10-bit allowed by Ultra HD – and that’s picking nits. This isn’t a flashy visual presentation, but it’s most certainly masterful.
Unlike most other first-wave Ultra HD titles, the audio is presented here in an efficient and compelling Dolby Atmos lossless mix. As many of you will already be aware, Atmos is an object-based sound format (an extension of the core 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix) that allows for more intricate placement and panning of sound effects and dialogue within the soundstage. There are only a couple moments where the height channels really reveal their presence, notably the explosion near the end of the film’s opening FBI raid, but there are music and atmospheric effects throughout the film that are subtly enhanced. This isn’t an aggressive sound mix by any means, but the TrueHD audio was already excellent and the Atmos adds just that much more precision and immersiveness.
There are no extras on the 4K disc, but the included Blu-ray version offers 4 behind-the-scenes featurettes: Stepping Into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario (16:45), Blunt, Brolin and Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario (14:35), A Pulse from the Desert: The Score of Sicario (6:19), and Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario (13:45). You also get the usual Digital Copy code via paper insert.
[Editor’s Note: Given that nearly all 4K releases are multi-disc sets, with the extras often included on separate BD discs, our extras grades for these 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray reviews will reflect the bonus content across all discs in the set.]
Sicario is a film that can be difficult to like, as it leaves its main character and its audience in a rather dark place. Still, it sticks with you over time, and I found that I appreciated it more after a second viewing. Moreover, Lionsgate’s Ultra HD presentation is definitely a must-have among the format’s first wave of titles.
- Bill Hunt