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The Movie Like Zero Dark Thirty That Action Thriller Fans Need To See

Movies about the U.S.'s wars in the Middle East have become a genre unto itself in the 21st century, with "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty'"s Kathryn Bigelow leading the pack of directors who have turned to battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan for high-powered action, perspective on the American zeitgeist, and urgent political critique.

"Zero Dark Thirty," which turned the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden into a tragic, morally fraught meditation on the toll of the U.S.'s post-9/11 foreign policy, is arguably the most notable among all those films. In addition to being laced with Bigelow's typical command of tension and compressed emotional intensity, the movie isn't afraid to bring queasy ambiguity into what many viewers might be inclined to see as a straightforward tale of good vs. evil. Jessica Chastain's central performance as the CIA analyst leading the manhunt is far from heroic — though she means well, she can't help getting swallowed up into a brutal, draining, ethically labyrinthine system that leaves her wondering whether it was all worth it.

In that sense, there is another movie from the 2010s that functions surprisingly well as a kind of mirror image to "Zero Dark Thirty;" except it focuses on a different American front: the war on drugs. Like Chastain's Maya, the protagonist of "Sicario" is a well-meaning woman who commits to fighting what she sees as a just fight within the parameters set by U.S. intelligence agencies. But, arguably even more than Maya, she comes to find herself severely frustrated.

Sicario is an uncompromising look into the reality of the war on drugs

At the outset, "Sicario" appears to be a conventional crime thriller like so many set in the U.S.-Mexico border before it: We're introduced to FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) lead a gripping raid on a Mexican cartel safe house. When Kate is summoned into a government task force to take down a major drug operation, it appears, as in the beginning of "Zero Dark Thirty", that this will be the story of a badass heroine squaring off against bad guys.

Alas, "Sicario" is no conventional crime thriller. It is, after all, directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has, at different points in his career, subverted the usual preoccupations of such established genres as the police procedural (in "Prisoners") and the sci-fi drama (in "Arrival"). The main interest of Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan isn't in the perils and thrills of Kate's mission, but in the fundamental impossibility of it: The war on drugs can't be won, its apparatus is essentially a cover for corruption, wasted resources, and pointless violence, and the real interests behind it are the opposite of virtuous. Kate, our entry point into this world, learns all that the hard way.

Spoiling the turns "Sicario" takes would be a disservice, so we'll just advise you to calibrate your expectations for a slice of action-thriller excellence — Villeneuve's direction of the tense and violent scenes is expectably masterful — that nonetheless traffics in frustration and unpleasantness by design. It's a movie that may leave you feeling hopeless and angry at the state of the world. But, much like "Zero Dark Thirty," that's what makes it a vital entry into its genre.