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Senior Correspondent

The war on drugs is lost.

No character in “Sicario” says as much, but the overwhelming thrust of Dennis Villeneuve’s gripping film makes that conclusion unavoidable.

Taylor Sheridan‘s first produced screenplay couches its sobering observations within the familiar tropes of an anti-crime drama. “Sicario” (Mexican slang for “hit man”) begins with FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) leading a raid on what appears to be an unremarkable home in the Arizona desert.

Except that the house is filled with heavily armed men and contains dozens of dead bodies entombed behind dry wall — it’s like some sort of bizarre tract home catacomb.

Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are by-the-book types who make a point of observing all the legal niceties. So Kate is puzzled when she is reassigned to an interagency task force where the rules are bent or broken with disturbing regularity.

She’s suspicious of Graver (Josh Brolin), the garrulous but vaguely sinister task force leader. She thinks he may be CIA — but that can’t be, since the CIA cannot legally get involved in domestic operations.

And her red flags really begin twitching in the presence of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who claims to be a former Mexican prosecutor but radiates lethal possibilities, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mexican drug cartels they’re trying to bring down.

“Sicario’s” knotted plot is hard to explain — it involves a massive plan to force one drug kingpin to reveal the identity of his heavily-protected boss. There are blatantly illegal incursions South of the Border, a kidnapping and torture — but the mood of desperation, corruption and betrayal that it establishes (abetted by a throbbing musical score that seems to embody doom) is carried with the viewers as we leave the theater.

The Canadian Villeneuve, whose Oscar-nominated “Incendies” is one of the best foreign language films of recent years and who made a mark on the U.S. box office with “Prisoners,” seasons this grim yarn with tour-de-force moments.

He makes the rugged Southwestern landscape a character in its own right, capturing the vast desert in dreamlike aerial flyovers. By comparison, a mission to Juarez, Mexico, is like a descent into one of Dante’s circles of Hades, where headless naked bodies sway beneath highway overpasses, where any passing car may contain determined killers and where the natural landscape has been fouled with thrown-together structures to house a desperate populace.

Villeneuve — whose work here reminds of Michael Mann at his best — often surprises with his choices like filming an intense conversation between Kate and Graver from 50 feet away.

The action is swift and terrifying. Particularly effective is a shootout in a crowded traffic jam of cars lined up for a border crossing and a nighttime raid on a drug smuggling tunnel filmed mostly through the infrared and night-vision goggles worn by the American forces.

Not everything here works smoothly. After establishing Kate as our heroine, the film shifts its focus in the last 20 minutes to Del Toro’s ominous character. And there’s a somewhat truncated subplot involving a Mexican policeman (Maximilio Hernandez) who balances his role as family man with his work as an on-the-take cop for the cartel.

These digressions have the effect of drawing us away from Kate. Then, too, as written Kate may be the least interesting character on the screen. Good thing, then, that Blunt is such a resourceful and convincing actress.

While never articulated, “Sicario’s” message comes through loud and clear:

The criminalization of drugs has made evil men incredibly rich and powerful. And when the only way the authorities can fight that evil is to adopt its nefarious methods — when you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys — isn’t the battle already over?

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