Some movies do not tell a single story, they tell two or three or more (or none!). Such movies can often display a sort of hybrid sensibility, more easily swinging between various emotions depending on which story is front and center at a given moment. While making any movie is not an easy task, trying to tie multiple threads into a single film feels like a heavier burden. In this case of director RJ Collins’s “American Sicario,” the endeavor is not entirely successful.
Based on a true story, this film scripted by Rich Ronat offers up Phillipe A. Haddad as our lead character and chief anti-hero, Erik Vasquez. As the title of the movie indicates and nothing that the tale itself bothers to explore, Erik was born in the United States and eventually moved to Mexico where he now works smuggling drugs back across the border (or has people do it for him anyway). Why he has pursued this line of criminal activity is as hidden in shadows as his reasons for leaving the States in the first place. Sure, we can hypothesize based on snippets from the movie, but everything seemingly leads back to a mundane and generic desire for money and power.
Very little on this side of things works. The story is played as deadly serious and filled with two-dimensional individuals, from Erik’s various henchmen to his bosses, the Feliz brothers (Maurice Compte and Johnny Rey Diaz), to a DEA representative (Maya Stojan).
No, where the movie works best is with its second story. Much more played for laughs, this one deals with his wife, Gloria (Cali Morales), and her father, Pedro (Danny Trejo), who has come for an extended visit. Pedro was in the drug game but got out at some point in ways unspecified and now has very definite ideas on how Erik should treat Gloria and her unborn child.
The advantage to this aspect of the film isn’t that it is unique, but rather that Trejo’s presence—his sly smiles, his winks, his knowing glances—add no small amount of life the goings-on. The push-and-pull between Erik and his father-in-law manages to take on both a fun and still deadly serious tone. There is no doubt that if Pedro were still in his prime, Erik wouldn’t stand a chance. Now, as things currently are, it might be a close fight, and both men seem to know it.
While some films might thrive on the incongruity of the two different stories that are playing out, “American Sicario” does not. The cartel story is—even if it is based in truth—so completely been there-done that, so completely bland, that the more time we spend with it, the worse it seems. Regrettably, the more engaging family life tale plays second fiddle to the other; we get the Pedro-Erik dynamic in the moments between the cartel tale rather than vice versa.
The flashes of potential enjoyment offered up on the family side of things only serves to illustrate the fact that there is an interesting story to be told, that Collins has the pieces he needs. It also makes the story of one villain’s attempt to outsmart other villains in not very deft ways disappointing.
There is a question that arises in regards to this last: does Erik not pursue his goals in a fashion that would work because he is not a sensible man or does he not go down such a road because the filmmakers were simply not inventive enough? Put another way, is the problem within the text or in the way the text itself is written? Any answers to this question would be pure conjecture (and quite possibly lie outside the purview of a review), and that is unfortunate as it’s the most interesting thing to ponder arising from “American Sicario.”
This is a largely bland film with performances that, for the most part, does not impress. The characters are not explored beyond a surface level and the handful of interesting visual moments are overshadowed by ones that are much more mundane.
“American Sicario” is one of those many films that the viewer leaves contemplating what might have been. It is a work that is so close to being interesting and engaging but routinely declines to go down any path that would bolster said interest or engagement. Instead, it opts for the usual trappings of mob/drug cartel based films, bullets and blood and scantily clad women. It could have been more.
photo credit: Saban Films