Director: Stefano Sollima Starring: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabel Moner, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener Running Time: 122 minutes
It can’t hurt a film to have a little ambiguity from time to time. Three years ago, the uncompromising crime-thriller Sicario took us to the darkest corners of the greyest areas of the US-Mexican border, a place where Mexican cartels and the US government could compete to get up to the shadiest shit. It was an intense film with a considerable combination of talent: Denis Villeneuve combining to great effect with Roger Deakins to put the suffocating effect of the crime scene on screen, a great score by the gone-too-soon Jóhann Jóhannsson and a script by Taylor Sheridan that was seemingly very thoughtfully assembled; like an Apocalypse Now for America’s drug war. On screen, the talents of Emily Blunt dragged viewers down with her own sinking feelings, an FBI agent turned bystander to the morally ambivalent machinations of the Department of Justice, embodied by the casual hoo-ra “consultant” Matt Graver played by Josh Brolin and the mysterious, violent sicario Alejandro Gillick, played by Benicio Del Toro. They were up to something, it was no good, and there was noting Blunt could do about.
Something suspicious happened towards the end of Sicario though. A balance shift, a feeling that the film was becoming a bit too enamoured of its hitman for its own good. If Matt and Alejandro come out on top at the end, does that make it a downer ending or a triumph? Who is the main character of the film again? Emily Blunt’s conspicuous absence from the sequel Soldado might tell its own story. The boys are back in town. Sicario is not sending us it’s best people. In a fraught political environment, this sequel feels even less wanted, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.
Villeneuve isn’t back either for Soldado with Stefano Sollima, a veteran of Italian television, stepping in to take his place and essentially copy and paste the look of the original film. The big name behind the camera that does return is Sheridan, whose desolate-grit-despair style is increasingly leaning more sensational. Scripts like Sicario, Hell or High Water and for its many faults, Wind River felt ripped for the headlines: timely, pessimistic but nobly-intentioned. If Sheridan has been looking for more headlines to inspire him they’re certainly from fake news sources; Soldado’s plot is scare-mongering nonsense. Middle Eastern terrorists are sneaking into America via the Mexican border and blowing themselves up with the helping hand of the cartels. We’re told that smuggling people into the US is now more lucrative for the cartels than drugs and the government response is to declare the Mexican cartels to be terrorist organisations themselves. It would be implausible if it wasn’t so plausible. The Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) and his underling Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) enlist Graver and Gillick to cause havok south of the border, with a mission to fool two of the major Mexican syndicates into a war with each other by kidnapping the daughter of one of their leaders (the one that B del T happens to have beef with). The government’s mistake is the same as the films: deciding that these two characters are badass enough that they should be given free reign, which certainly won’t leave the US in danger of starting a war with Mexico. Or this movie in danger of being dumb and bad.
Sicario was anchored by the presence of Blunt (and to a lesser extent Daniel Kaluuya, also absent here) as a sceptical observer. Her being constantly in the dark kept the film tense and propulsive, made the story morally balanced and was a benefit to the performances of Brolin and Del Toro. They were provided with a foil and given an air of mystery as their thinner character didn’t have to carry the whole film. Soldado is the sequel you would get is you showed Sicario to one of those people that thought Walter White was cool and Skylar sucked and asked them to turn in a script, which is baffling considering both films have the same writer. Freed from the nagging influence of Emily, macho bullshit abides and the images get unpleasant fast. Brolin’s introduction is a pointless detour in torturing Somali pirates. An ominous shot of prayer mats in the Mexican desert is straight out of the feverish fears of a Daily Mail comment, and few films in recent years have made a country look as ugly as this one makes Mexico look. The emotional centre of the film, Alejandro developing a bond with the teenage girl that he’s kidnapped, is too mired in this muck to bloom. The film cares far more about him than her anyway, bringing him an embarrassing endpoint; a Jason Vorhees to the cartel. Was Sicario this trashy one wonders? Combined with Wind River there’s a suggestion that Sheridan is politically conscious, but his views are compromised by a need to commit to genre demands. A shootout on a dusty trail is Soldado’s stand out sequence. It’s chaotic, confusing and adrenaline-pumping. So why is it the scenes where the film is trying to say something the ones that are the most headache-inducing?
It’s a miserable film where Mexico is a dour den of criminality, plans are always ill-intentioned and go to hell and the only heroes are the worst people imaginable. A film too pulpish and too fevered to be the intellectual thriller it sees itself as, with another sequel setup straight out of the Sin City playbook, it’s a film that abandons the disciplined work of those who made the first film for an excessive surrender to excess. “No rules today, just orders” Brolin advises at one point in Soldado. The people behind this film were no doubt just following orders, but they should have played more by the rules.(2 / 5)