Emily Blunt as Kate Macer in Sicario.

Before 'Special Ops: Lioness,' Taylor Sheridan's 'Sicario' Transformed the Military Thriller

This moody cartel thriller is a must-see.

Special Ops: Lioness, Taylor Sheridan's CIA thriller now in its first season on Paramount+, is a snackable, comfier version of the Yellowstone creator's magnificent 2015 film Sicario. A drug-war thriller starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, Sicario was the first of Sheridan's scripts to make it to the screen, and the inaugural film of his so-called modern American frontier trilogy (which includes Hell or High Water and Wind River). Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Dune), Sicario was nominated for 3 Oscars. And no military thriller since has recreated the film's unnerving blend of taut, special-ops thriller and slow-burn mystery. 

Emily Blunt (Oppenheimer) stars as Kate Macer, a by-the-book FBI agent plucked from the Special Weapons team and enlisted in a shady task force working against the cartel. She's surrounded by duplicitous male operatives with ill-defined roles and powers. There's Josh Brolin's task force lead Matt Graver, who takes a shockingly cavalier approach (he literally wears flip-flops to top-secret meetings) to the twisty goings-on south of the border. Then there's Benicio Del Toro's BAFTA-nominated role as Alejandro, an inscrutable consultant whose motives remain unclear up to the final minutes of the film. 

Josh Brolin in Sicario


While it has all the hallmarks of a heart-pounding military thriller (there's a genre-defining suspense sequence on the freeway at the border), Sicario is not a procedural like Special Ops: Lioness. Sometimes, the task force is luring out an infamous cartel boss; Other times, Graver vaguely alludes to escalating the drug war for some unknown purpose. Their tactics are dangerous at best, and probably illegal. And they go unexplained until the last moments. There's a ticking clock, but we're not sure what it's counting down toward.

Benicio Del Toro in Sicario


Sicario is Sheridan's most prestige project to-date, with huge names behind the camera. Outside of Villeneuve's singular direction, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) received his 13th Oscar nomination for Sicario. It was edited by frequent Villeneuve collaborator Joe Walker, who would win an Oscar for his work on Dune. The late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival) was nominated for his bone-tingling score. And the supporting cast is terrific: There's the always-excellent Jon Bernthal, Emmy nominee Victor Garber (Argo), Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya (Nope), prolific character actor Jeffrey Donovan (Fargo) and Julio Cesar Cedillo (Narcos: Mexico).

Another distinction between Sicario and Special Ops: Lioness has to do with attitude toward the conflicts at hand. The latter plays almost like a military recruitment ad. There's nothing wrong with that: The excellent Top Gun: Maverick is just the same, and Sheridan has always maintained strong support of the armed forces. But Sicario is about the ways in which the "jumbled mess at the border," as Sheridan put it, swallows morality whole. The result is an atmospheric thriller that alienates just as deeply as it entertains, and no military film since has replicated that feeling. 

Sicario is available to stream on MGM+ (now offering a 7-day free trial) or rent on Prime Video.

READ MORE: Get Your Espionage Fix With These 8 Spy Thriller Shows Like 'Special Ops: Lioness'