The following review contains a brief overview of the plot and is otherwise spoiler-free, however key points from the first Sicario film are discussed.
Director: Stefano Sollima
Stars: Benecio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
Sicario 2: Soldado is truly a film of its era, something which comes to feel like an accusation as the dust settles on viewing the thing. Denis Villeneuve’s first installment (in what’s become, surprisingly, a franchise) arrived back in 2015, but there were ripples in the water then. This follow-up emerges from the deep darkness of modern America, a roiling mess of slippery motivations and circumspect intent.
Villeneuve may have moved on, setting his sights on Dune, but Tyler Sheridan has remained as author of this expanding saga, and it’s another of his tough neo-Westerns, heavy on mid-life machismo.
Sicario alienated some (this viewer included) by reducing its protagonist, played by Emily Blunt, to a victim. With her pocketed as another casualty of the Mexican drug wars, the final third felt rudderless, and its a problem that continues well into the opening hour of Soldado.
For a while this movie has to rely on Josh Brolin’s scowling government bad boy Matt Graver as its erstwhile lead. Brolin’s had a good summer playing villainous types all over, and the merciless mindset of Graver is reintroduced with all the grace of a gutter ball. Here, following a series of terrorist attacks that have been enabled by human trafficking across the US/Mexico border, Graver is commissioned to start a civil war between the Mexican drug cartels, with permission to make it all dirty.
Graver contracts Benecio del Toro’s vengeful attorney-turned-hitman Alejandro for his latter set of skills, and a plan is put into place to abduct kingpin Carlos Reyes’ daughter Isabel (Isabela Moner) from her chaperoned school run. Elsewhere, we are intermittently allowed modest time with a young man named Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez) who is being coerced into the trafficking trade by his older cousin. The two storylines cross ever-so-briefly, foreshadowing greater trouble down the road.
Not that Soldado required such a thudding moment to generate a sense of impending doom. Coming on strong like a Cormac McCarthy parody minus any sense of humour, Soldado utilises every resource at its disposal to instill a mood of nihilistic dread, from the inhumane drone photography to the blunt-force-trauma of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s mega-oppressive score (which I downloaded immediately…). On aesthetic terms, director Stefano Sollina gets what he’s going for. It’s not exactly that he nails it, its more like he smashes its fucking face in.
If that sounds a little brutal then you’d best steer clear of the movie, which relishes the misery of violence. Rare or infrequent are scenes that don’t include some form of cruelty, either threatened or made good on. It’s a bloody, battering experience, one in which there are no good guys and life is extinguished without so much as a thought.
As intimated, Sheridan’s screenplay folds in hot topics such as terrorist martyrdom and rampant immigration problems, yet seems more interested in using these things as plot mechanics as opposed to taking any kind of political stance. Similarly the drug cartels – which are presented as integral to the plot – are almost totally absent from the drama. It amounts to a curious kind of Mexploitation.
This could all be perceived as a pessimist’s reaction to the era of Trump. The America presently broadcast to the world’s headlines is one of lawlessness and moral torpor, as those in power are allowed to get away with reshaping democracy into something else, doing so in broad daylight. In Soldado the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable are erased, making decisions more and more arbitrary (and reversals lacking in dramatic heft). Everything seems so senseless. The negativity of the film is crushing, but it is its own aesthetic of sorts; captivating, but horrible. I almost admire how all-in Soldado goes on being ugly.
The middle of the film works best, when it temporarily unknots itself for something more basic and engaging, as Alejandro and Isabel find themselves in their own mini version of Logan. The sparseness here is a boon to the film, but it often feels forced or false, manufactured from pre-existing parts, playing to a formula.
In fact, the whole of Soldado feels like someone asked an A.I. to write a movie about human behaviour. The result is callous, robotic and deeply unflattering; a soulless assessment of our worst tendencies.
The absence of a centre dogs the whole movie, but del Toro makes for a far more charismatic antihero than Brolin. It’s rather satisfying to think that, nearly a quarter of a century down the road, Benecio has become the most interesting and bankable Usual Suspect (though some of us suspected this right from the start).
The film’s finale plays for shock rather than sense, but at least maintains the brazen disrespect for audience satisfaction that was evidenced in Sicario. Whats more, with its intention as a bridging film out in the open, the end seems far more concerned with setting up the closing chapter. Naturally, this makes the picture feel frustratingly unfinished.
I’m thoroughly conflicted about this one. On the one hand it feels as though Sheridan has gotten a lot closer to the type of film he wanted Sicario to be, as though he has shorn away the last vestiges of humanity to show us the pseudo-mythic ciphers we’re in danger of becoming. On the other, that worldview is so wretched that Soldado feels suffocating. As subtle as a grenade lobbed through an open car window.
There’s a darkness in me that admires Soldado its position (or lack thereof), that finds this world of dust and gun metal gravely apocalyptic and more compelling than before. The better angels of my nature, however, suspect it might actually be awful. At the time of writing its an uneasy tie.