Sicario 2: Soldado
aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado
I wasn’t among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of “realism” – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro’s character Alejandro Gillick wasn’t just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman.
Sicario 2: Soldado grazes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so it’s consistent in that respect, and – ironically – in some respects, fares better than its predecessor, by dint of being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of “revealing” how things really are.
There’s been criticism that the picture’s mere existence feeds into the edifice (wall) of scaremongering regarding Mexico and illegal immigration. But equally, it would be an optimistic expectation that a movie focussing on the cartels would find the time to present a positive, balanced image of the country and its people.
Added to which, Sicario 2 is expressly fuelled by the essential corruption of everything that is institutional USA, be it off-the-books activity sanctioned at the most senior level, incursions into foreign territory to enact illegal acts or hands-washing and loose-ends tying-off when operations don’t go quite as planned. Is it responsible to make something that may feed into the arguments of those pointing fingers? Probably not, and I’d be more willing to defend it against such a charge if the picture displayed an abiding intelligence or perspective amid the tried-and-tested pulp tropes.
The trigger for returnee Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is the Secretary of Defence’s (Matthew Modine) desire for a persuasive response when cartel-smuggled suicide bombers lay waste a Kansas supermarket. The resultant suggestion from Matt Graver (Josh Brolin)? Start a war between cartels and so get them to wipe each other out. It’s a somewhat spirited-out-of-nowhere plotline, and one must assume it was a desperate attempt on the part of Sheridan to find a “What if?” that would lead to a politico giving carte blanche.
Hence, the later reveal that the suicide bombing is actually by American citizens. This might have been used as a blackly comic twist, if it weren’t all-but lost in the melee, or even as a purposeful piece of misdirection à la WMD (something patently untrue used to justify an action). But since the operation is undercover, that would only work as something specifically designed to manipulate Modine. There’s an overriding air of jacked-up, Tom Clancy laziness about the device, but Sheridan isn’t short on such shortcuts to plausibility.
The biggest of which being, in an age where even Hollywood is making movies about CIA drug running (Kill the Messenger, the recent Tom Cruiser Made in America), we’re really supposed to buy that they’d go ahead with the instructions of the DoD and do something that might put a serious cramp in their ability to continue creaming off all those unofficial funding sources? Sheridan, in his bid for an authentic tone, has omitted a key ingredient that would lend credibility to the cynicism of his anti-heroes.
As for those anti-heroes, he only makes matters worse for his title character by fleshing out Alejandro’s already ludicrous characterisation. A man who didn’t hesitate to gun down a drug lord’s wife and sons in the previous movie now gets all sentimental over another drug lord’s daughter? Why? Because she evidently reminds him of his own dearly-departed bairn. And, for the purposes of this instance, he can make the distinction between a drug lord and their offspring. As a consequence, he goes against his stone-cold code and Graver’s instruction.
The biggest point in the character’s favour – and in Graver’s – in the first movie was his completely amoral perspective (in terms of presenting him “legitimately”). Take that away, and you have just another surrogate father tale (Mercury Rising, Logan, Last Action Hero ad infinitum). Now to be fair, this plotline itself functions reasonably well, but Sheridan is effectively telling us the guy we fully understood Emily Blunt wanting to kill in the original is alright, really. Does Sheridan actually think these guys are good guys? Despite everything they do? Is he someone destined to work closely with Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg in the not-so-distant future? Well, he has family in law enforcement, so I shouldn’t wonder.
This humanising extends to Graver by osmosis. He wouldn’t usually hesitate to kill kidnapped drug lord’s nipper Isabela (Isabela Moner, previously sexualised by Michael Bay in the triumphant Transformers: The Last Knight), but out of respect towards his dear friend, he decides refrain. We’re now so far into the realm of Hollywood cliché that earlier turnabouts by Modine and admonishments from Catherine Keener seem entirely believable. On the other hand, who was director Stefano Sollima trying to kid from the first, when he has Alejandro reveal his face to a cartel lawyer on a busy street in Mexico City before killing him? How long can that kind of flagrantly frivolous vigilante/hitman make a fist of things? Outside of comic books, where he usually wears a mask.
There are other issues with the progression here; Isabela becomes largely passive (emotionally) once captured, a gauge of moral temperature rather than a character. Nevertheless, del Toro’s such a good actor (and without a silly stammer here, even more so) that the bonding sequences are largely strong ones, particularly their encounter with a deaf peasant.
The picture’s most laughable development comes after coyote – people smuggler – Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) receives the order from boss Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, probably resigned to playing despicable Mexicans, with this and Goliath in quick succession) to execute Alejandro. Alejandro goes down, apparently lifeless. But we can’t help notice he’s been shot in the lower face, possibly only through his cheeks. Just what are the chances of that?
Well, as I noted in my review of the original, Alejandro is pretty much Batman, so quite high in all honesty. It’s precisely the sort of death-defying development that would befall your average lawyer turned kickass ninja hitman. Come on, is anyone taking seriously the idea these movies are actually about something?
Sheridan even goes as far as setting up his would-be assassin as Son of Sicario or Sicario: The Next Generation (Blame it on Sicario?) for the inevitable sequel. In their favour, there’s a sustained tension running through most of the Miguel scenes, of an (relatively) innocent young guy dropped in over his head into people smuggling, promised riches but likely to fall foul of border patrols, and if not them a psychotic boss. Early scenes, such as his cousin trading insults with an acquaintance across the river/border as a police car glides by, have an easy verisimilitude that’s far more potent than the ominous perma-rumble of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s industrial-swampy soundtrack.
Brolin’s great in early scenes, when unflinchingly called upon to kill a potential informant’s family by drone strike, or meeting with Secretary of Defence and all but cracking open a beer as he enjoys the show and tells them how it is. He is, however, simply less interesting when it’s time to show he’s also a compassionate, feeling kind of guy. Jeffery Donovan and Shea Whigham are wasted in a cameo and undercooked support respectively.
Sheridan justified his sequel with the thought “I sure would love to see what happened if these guys didn’t have a chaperone“, going on to comment that Sicario was about the militarisation of the police, and the sequel’s next logical step was to remove that policing aspect. In both respects, he rather fails to find anything to dig into, neutering the potential of the leads unleashed by locating their moral centres and never building anything – in its predecessor either – into a coherent conversation regarding the policing point. And yet, despite these fundamental problems, Sollima has made Sicario 2: Soldado a frequently gripping movie. Just don’t call it authentic.