Synopsis – The drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border. To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver re-teams with the mercurial Alejandro.
My Take – Released back in 2015, director Denis Villeneuve‘s film, Sicario, gave a brutal and harrowing commentary on the U.S.’s abusive relationship with Mexico, their neighbors to the South, but in the guise of an intense and exciting action/thriller that focused on the government and cartel conflicts taking place on the border. Even though the fantastic film never cried for a sequel, its achievement of earning $84.9 million on its $30 million budget, guaranteed otherwise. While we knew follow up was never going to be as good as its predecessor, the sequel thankfully manages to be competent and as electrifying and exciting piece of genre cinema, despite lacking the nuance. The chief difference between this sequel and the original, comes down to a few significant absences.
While scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan returns, Emily Blunt‘s character, FBI agent Kate Macer is nowhere to be found, cinematographer Roger Deakins is busy with other projects, while composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has unfortunately passed away. Most importantly, director Denis Villeneuve has handed over the reins to Italian director Stefano Sollima, known for the mafia series, Gamora, who here, drops any pretense at thought-provoking importance and instead focuses on delivering a more generic story told once again with tension, suspense, and thrilling action sequences along with a pair of effortless performances from the two returning leads, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. If you are a fan of writer Taylor Sheridan‘s works and have seen his other films like Hell or High Water and Wind River, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, if not, it’s best to steer away.
Picking up sometime after the events of the first film, the story follows Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a veteran CIA operative, who is summoned to Washington, D.C., by CIA director Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) and Defense Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) to take on the Mexican cartels as now there is evidence that they have begun smuggling terrorists from other countries into the United States. In order to make things simpler for them, they require Graver to trigger a full-scale war against the cartels so they’re not seen as the aggressors, allowing the US Military to intervene.
As things require to get dirtier than before, Graver calls in Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a former tax inspector and prosecutor in Juarez, who following the brutal murders of his wife and daughter became an assassin aka a Sicario, to help him and Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), to put the plan in motion. However, when they kidnap Isabel (Isabela Moner), the spoiled teenage daughter of a cartel head under disguise, like most U.S. plans involving foreign intervention it soon goes spectacularly wrong, leading to an order to dispatch both Alejandro and Isablel, all in an effort to avoid an international incident.
Meanwhile, a subplot shows us how Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), an American teenager of Mexican descent, is being groomed by a gang of human trafficking. We know the two plot lines will have to converge, and they do so in a suitably implausible manner. Directed with aggressive, eye-popping flourish and urgency by Stefano Sollima, who plunges us into multiple story lines that eventually intertwine in crazy and sometimes deeply satisfying ways, this film is without a doubt a worthy follow-up to the 2015 original.
While the first film was primarily about drug cartels, and shocked us by showing how the good guys broke every rule by dispensing their own form of justice at the end of a gun, this time the focus is instead on human trafficking and throws in some fundamentalist terrorism too, just for good measure, in a horrific sequence where a Kansas City supermarket is targeted. While the plot is comparatively more basic, the tone is darker, as the film lacks the mediating humanism of Kate Macer, the FBI agent played by Emily Blunt in the first film, who was appalled by the corruption and violence she saw oozing up as she sank deeper into the War on Drugs. In the original, the audience had a surrogate who was entering the world of Mexican drug cartels for the first time. We saw from her perspective how dehumanizing and horrifying this world could be, and seeing her will be slowly broken was what really stuck with me, even after all of these years.
Macer’s absence from this picture gives Graver and Alejandro license to flick away whatever piddling ethical constraints might have hindered them previously and to get nonstop nasty. Which is fine, but we’re meant to root for two assholes who do horrible things because they hate the world. Sure, we can empathize with Alejandro, but it’s not as powerful as watching a decent person be beaten down by the world. Of course, director Sollima is no Villeneuve, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no Roger Deakins, and while the action sequences lack the first film’s building dread and stark beauty they still deliver with intensity and adrenaline. An early ambush sees the world shrink from wide-open landscapes to close-quarter combat in mere seconds, and later exchanges are equally adept at blending tension and excitement. One sequence involving a grenade tossed nonchalantly into an enemy’s car is a memorable single-take, and the gun fights in general offer a precision in hardware, tactics, and impact that too many action films gloss over.
Yet, director Stefano Sollima tries his best to keep the misery and despair of the first film intact, and there are plenty of scenes that effectively do so. There’s a scene very early on of a group of suicide bombers attacking a grocery store, and a brutal execution scene that left me squirming in my seat afterwards. It’s equally confusing trying to find any moral or message. The film paints an ugly picture of the Mexicans, who are either ruthless criminals or “sheep” (as the people smugglers describe their customers). We see a US government willing to launch illegal, warlike operations on Mexican soil, happy to massacre and kidnap as the mood takes them. The American operatives are no better than the Mexican gangsters but with much better weaponry. But, the film is intense almost for its entirety, while some scenes go on a little too long, but it’s mostly a pretty nonstop thrill ride. A film like this requires pushing the limits of comfort and the sequel dives right back into the seedy underbelly to accomplish this goal.
The dark atmosphere of the film opens it up for a lot of twists and turns, and keep one guessing what will happen next to our band of anti-heroes. Taylor Sheridan, the prolific screenwriter of the first film and the even better border-crime film Hell or High Water, wrote the script to this follow-up. You can see him sweating mightily in the third act to juggle irreconcilable imperatives: To shine where the first film did, as well as to satisfy what feels like a studio-imposed mandate for more films, and to persuade himself he’s making something more poetic and tragic than just an amoral mood piece for violence junkies. In terms of character development, the film’s edge cuts away the safety barriers to reveal deeper avenues to cut down to discover more about our players. If you’ve seen the original, you’ll know that the deadly Alejandro has no qualms about cold-blooded murdering women, children, and anyone else whose death furthers his revenge. His struggle to protect a girl who part of him wants to kill is the film’s main dramatic conflict, and it transforms Alejandro into a sympathetic, if not exactly likable character.
While similar elements have been seen in many films before (more recently Logan), the comfortably familiar narrative of a morally ambiguous antihero forced to care for and protect a child is an oft-revisited one for a reason. There’s drama and easy engagement in that dynamic, and it works beautifully here thanks in large part to Del Toro’s sad-eyed performance. A connection is formed between an empty man fueled only by vengeance and a girl both oblivious and indifferent to the suffering her father causes. A sequence involving a deaf couple in rural Mexico is especially touching, and while these are easy beats to land they land all the same. The original stood up perfectly well on its own, as you might remember—there was really no need for this sequel to be made. But here it is anyway, and the good news is that it’s a sturdily wrought action item, as savage as you’d expect and quite a bit of fun, too. Mainly as when the film works, it soars!
It’s hard to gauge how appealing these two films would be without the allure of Benicio del Toro, who is phenomenal as Alejandro. He was great in the original, and he’s still great here. He just exudes being a badass without having any of the standard Hollywood beef cake elements. All you need to do is look at him and you know he can kill you without even trying. Even Josh Brolin doesn’t veer much from his rugged, singular emotion, but it works in regards to the character he is chosen to portray. The two are masterful together. The dynamic between Brolin’s Graves and del Toro’s Alejandro is something out of a film-noir buddy film. Both men have committed countless atrocities, sometimes justified, sometimes not so much and they share a world-weary bond as they gear up for the obligatory one last mission. Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Knight) is also is surprisingly good as the snobby and fierce cartel princess, and tends to act the guys off the screen. In supporting roles, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener, Elijah Rodriguez, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine and Shea Whigham are effective. On the whole, ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado‘ is a solid follow up to an excellent film, which despite following short in certain factors, manages to entertain with its brutal action and satisfying narrative.
Directed – Stefano Sollima
Rated – R
Run Time – 122 minutes