29th Jun2018

‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine | Written by Taylor Sheridan | Directed by Stefano Sollima

Sicario-2-Soldado-poster

2015’s Sicario was the film that elevated its director Denis Villenueve and got him the Blade Runner gig. Relentlessly grim and sometimes frustratingly evasive, it might not have functioned brilliantly as an informative exploration of real-world tensions, but as an exercise in unbearable tension and greytone morality, it did the job. What it certainly didn’t do is cry out for a sequel. But three years later, here we are.

After opening titles which make it very clear this is not about economic migration but cartel-controlled trafficking, the film opens with a truly shocking suicide bombing in a US supermarket – a scene which is wryly followed by Secretary of State James Riley (Matthew Modine) publicly stating that terrorism won’t terrify the American people.

Riley brings in Matt Graver (a brooding Josh Brolin) to clear up the mess on the Mexican border. (“Tight borders are good for business,” Matt says, speaking not just for the gangs but his own black ops unit.) The currency is no longer cocaine, but people. Specifically, people from North Africa and the Middle East, boating over to Central America and then nipping across the border, evading the helicopter spotlights with the help of the mobs. Mobs led by the fearsome Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who specialises in recruiting youngsters like Miguel (star-in-the-making Elijah Rodriguez) to join his trafficking business. There’s no high cause to speak of; no overtones of anti-establishment principles. Just the promise of money.

Matt is given absolute freedom to fix this situation, so he enlists the help of our old friend Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the sicario from the first film. Their elaborate plan is to start a gang war in Mexico by killing one of the bosses, kidnapping his daughter Isabel, and then blaming it on the other lot. Then she’ll be “rescued” by the Americans and returned. All does not go to plan, and it turns out that Mexican corruption reaches every part of the policing system. Matt and co are now in danger of triggering a war between the US and Mexico. Suddenly, Alejandro and Isabel are no longer assets, their very existence is dangerous. Does Matt have the steel balls to “clean up” this mess?

In an age of superheroes, resurgent even in death, the stakes here feel immediately real and visceral. There’s genuine tension, a sense of anything being possible, of no one being safe. Writer Taylor Sheridan is the Cormac McCarthy of the Screenwriters Guild. The plotting is clever and intricate, the character arcs are strong – for the main men, anyway – and it is directed well by Stefano Sollima, who is best known for his TV work on Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah. Every grim-faced scene is a tense, terse conversation clad in half-light, scored with doomy ambient strings.

While some of the dialogue scenes are a tad inert (every character is a model of sparse efficiency), in a stylistic sense the film certainly looks of a piece with its predecessor, particularly in the action scenes, which come more frequently and more furiously this time around. The dust road shoot-out is easily the equal of Sicario’s freeway gun battle, daring to focus on Isabel’s terror rather than the pyrotechnics. Veteran DOP Dariusz Wolski might be a slight step down from Roger Deakins, but the film still looks sumptuously cinematic.

There are exceptional performances from the three main actors, especially Moner. Her shift from untouchable mob princess to terrified captive is a brutal and moving transition. Brolin and Del Toro get an opportunity to deepen their roles, and it’s convincing; both are confused and surprised by the decency and sacrifice their situation draws from them. There is a variety of small character parts, but all feel lived in. The sole adult female is Catherine Keener’s Cynthia, although it’s a glum and somewhat thankless role.

As with the excellent Wind River, Sheridan’s screenplay may not be a pure reflection of reality, but it’s a reflection of the darker part of the human condition. And speaking of reflections, the film cleverly mirrors the situations on either side of the border, with the traffickers taking advantage of youth in the form of Miguel, while the US government do much the same with Isabel. Both children understand the iniquity of their predicaments, but both are too naïve to understand the broader ramifications. It could have been an exercise in crass miserablism, but there are serious questions being asked here about the value of human life in the context of high-level political decision-making.

So, the mythic quality remains, but what elevates Soldado above its predecessor is its forward momentum, and the efficiency and clarity of its storytelling. The absence of Emily Blunt would normally be a negative for any film, but in this case, without her frustrated Kate Macer constantly begging exposition, the plot drives more quickly and is less prone to fabricated mystery being drawn out of her ignorance.

Tighter, swifter and less elusive than its predecessor, while still being an effective showcase for moody macho style, Soldado is a gripping experience. For a sequel that never seemed likely, it’s better than we could have hoped, expanding its world and its characters and upping the stakes. What a welcome surprise it is. Bring on part three.

Sicario 2: Soldado is out in cinemas from today, 29th June.

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