The Cannes Film Festival isn't the first or even the 20th place you'd think to look for kick-ass action fare. But this year, Cannes showed off a solid if quirky hard-charging streak, seen at its most epic in Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron hosing off the wasteland grit and war grease to walk the red carpet in designer gear for Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller's Mel Gibson-free return to the Mad Max franchise 30 years after its last installment has become a solid box office hit as well as a critical darling, and its presence at Cannes was a nice additional affirmation of just how good everyone agrees that Miller's eye-searing chase epic is. Artful direction can take many forms, including a high-speed melding of flesh and chrome at the end of the world.
But Mad Max: Fury Road is also already in theaters — old news! — in most of the world. Its fellow Cannes premiere Sicario isn't due out in the U.S. until September 18, carefully placed on the cusp of Oscar season. The performances merit it — a splendidly slouchy Josh Brolin as a government agent who's nothing but trouble in a pair of flip flops, an equally showy Benicio Del Toro as his mysterious and hyper-competent contractor, and Emily Blunt in a more nuanced but also more thankless observer role as the Arizona FBI agent stuck repping the moral high ground.
In a crackerjack opening scene, Blunt and her task force partner (Daniel Kaluuya) raid a house outside of Phoenix where they believe hostages are being held by an encroaching tentacle of a Mexican cartel. They don't find hostages, but they do find dozens of bodies sealed up in the drywall, a horrifying discovery that's followed by an even worse one for those at the scene. There's something as apocalyptic to the sequence as Fury Road's use of a person as a "blood bag." It's a nightmare tucked away in a mundane suburb, and that feeling of invading darkness is one the film tries to sustain, with less success, as Blunt's character is recruited by Brolin's for a mission she's told almost nothing about.
Sicario comes from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who recently became attached to direct Blade Runner 2, and who has excelled in creating slightly heightened, slightly larger-than-life realities. There was the abstract raggedness of the Pennsylvania suburb in which Prisoners' morality tale played out, the scarring grandeur of the unnamed Middle Eastern war in Incendies, and the more obvious surreality of Enemy.
Sicario is set in a landscape that feels a touch removed too, a U.S. border where the cartel situation is escalating into something unimaginable, and a task force that turns out to have an extreme approach to the problem. It strives for the procedural tension of Zero Dark Thirty and the mythic weight of No Country For Old Men, and it brings to mind the Coens' film in other ways — Brolin's presence, Roger Deakins' elegantly yellowed cinematography, and a closing statement on the worsening state of the world.
The last isn't really earned, and the movie's underlying cynicism doesn't come off as profound so much as overly dour, especially when a character is advised to move away to a small town where the rule of law still applies, provoking a viewer to think, this person lives in Phoenix. Sicario is, nevertheless, gorgeously made, with a set piece taking place in tunnels underneath the border that conveys chaos without ever looking incoherent and a throbbing Jóhann Jóhannsson score that's the sound of very bad things on the horizon.
Sicario may be pretty, but looks-wise, it's got nothing on another Cannes competition title, The Assassin, which won Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien a Best Director award and which many thought was the main contender for the festival's big prize, the Palme d'Or. The combo of the wuxia genre and a filmmaker famous for making understated, meditative work is an odd one, and The Assassin has the framework of a martial arts movie while rarely getting around to actual martial arts — the fights, when they happen, occur in brief, efficient flashes of action, staged as if the characters were more interested in actually killing each other than entertaining an audience.
The film, which will be released in the U.S. by Well Go, reunites Shu Qi and Chang Chen, who played lovers across eras in Hou's earlier film Three Times, but here they are at odds — Shu's an assassin and Chang is the lord and former fiancé she's been sent to kill. It's 9th-century China, and there's court and political intrigue, all so opaquely outlined that it's difficult to figure out what's on any of the characters' minds at any given time, particularly the impassive, black-clad killer played by Shu. But oh, it's so lovely, from the brocade draped interiors to the mist moving over a landscape in the half light, like a series of confounding paintings placed end to end.
There's no mystery to be sorted in Green Room, a punks vs. neo-Nazis movie that premiered in the Directors' Fortnight section and follows a bloody survival struggle out in the Oregon woods. It's the latest from American indie filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, and expands on the approach to violence Saulnier used so well in his last movie, Blue Ruin. He portrays it as carried out by people who have little experience with it and no idea what they're doing, and who are horrified by the mess and awfulness of what they've been driven to do. It's a joltingly effective way to make action and gore feel fresh and distressing, insisting on an awareness of the vulnerable physicality of everyone on screen — especially when one of them is getting his throat torn out by a trained attack dog.
Saulnier's main characters, a band called the Ain't Rights made up of Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, and Joe Cole, score a makeup gig at a remote venue that's outside of their comfort zone, skinhead-wise, but promises to provide some much-needed dough to keep their tour going. They're the kind of kids whose idea of aggression is expressed through their opening their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys "Nazi Punks Fuck Off." But when one of them walks in on a murder and it becomes clear that no one else is interested in calling the cops, the four end up barricaded in the green room with the dead girl's friend (Imogen Poots). Then the club owner and local white-supremacist leader (Patrick Stewart!) turns up, and everything escalates into guerrilla warfare as carried out by people whose only previous brush with it was at a paintball party.
It's ingenious, witty, disturbing fun, lead by a show-stealing Poots as the one member of the green room group who understands from the start just how deep the shit that they're in is. The movie's especially good at puncturing the hardcore airs of its baddies, some of whom aren't any more battle-hardened than the people they're fighting, despite the tough-guy stances. Green Room, which doesn't yet have a U.S. distributor, delivers hard-won jolts by actually treating its characters like flesh and blood humans who have no idea what they're doing, but who are figuring it out — after all, their lives depend on it.