Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener
Taylor Sheridan has crafted himself a very successful niche in Hollywood. Following his writing successes on films like ‘Hell or High Water and Wind River’ (which he also directed), Sheridan has penned a sequel to the film that truly put him on the map, 2015’s ‘Sicario’. ‘Sicario’ is a crime thriller, directed by Denis Villeneuve and was one of the smash hits of 2015, earning Sheridan worldwide recognition for his superb screenplay and the way he handles dialogue. Flashing forward 3 years, ‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ is Sheridan’s first sequel, and it’s clear that Sheridan hasn’t lost his knack for piercing dialogue and riveting storytelling.
‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ stars Josh Brolin’s CIA Agent Matt Graver and his frequent inside man Alejandro Gillick (played superbly by Benicio Del Toro) as they attempt to find a solution to the increasingly troublesome drug war on the US-Mexico border. Their solution is as American as it gets – to incite a war between the biggest drug cartels in Mexico by kidnapping the daughter of one of the cartel kingpins and staging it as a rival cartel’s doing.
‘Sicario’ did a masterful job of unpacking the American approach to the drug trade in Mexico, examining why America does it, how it does it, and what it needs to do better. It criticises everything we have come to expect from a film like this by subverting our expectations, thanks in large part to the superb role Emily Blunt played as our audience surrogate. This time, Blunt is sadly nowhere to be seen, and as Graver says when recruiting Gillick again, there are “no rules this time,” with the ‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ team aiming to take a far more blunt approach to proceedings. While the overall effect of the film doesn’t match ‘Sicario,’ it delivers a satisfying follow up to one of 2015’s best efforts.
Starting with the good, the performances are as great as we’ve come to expect from pros like Brolin and Del Toro, each of them relishing their cutting lines of dialogue to various people who sadly get on their bad side. Brolin chews up his script like a man on a mission, with the ham-fisted subtlety that we expect from a man whose plan to stop the drug war is to, well, start a different war. Graver is the embodiment of the American Way in ‘Soldado’, when presented with two options, Graver will choose the one that makes the biggest explosion.
Del Toro’s performance is far more nuanced, a welcome change to Graver’s brash nature, as he completes his tasks strategically and efficiently. He has moments of brutality, like an early assassination where he uses his left index finger to fire his handgun faster than his right index finger could for reasons other than this looks cool. Alejandro is faced with many moral quandary’s through the film, mainly related to the kidnapped daughter, Isabel (played by Isabela Moner, off the back of a supporting role in ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’). Those familiar with ‘Sicario’ will know why Isabela is important to Alejandro, but what could have been forced melodrama comes off really nicely thanks to Del Toro’s performance, the highlight of which is the eye-opening sign-language conversation he has with a deaf-mute man he meets on his travels. Del Toro continues to be on fine form whatever he does, whether it’s the subtlety of this role or the madness of The Collector in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.
Further positives for ‘Soldado’ come from its music. With the tragic passing of Jóhann Jóhannsson earlier this year, soundtrack duties were passed to regular Jóhansson collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir. The original ‘Sicario’ soundtrack is stunning, earning numerous award nominations including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. ‘Soldado’s’ soundtrack is naturally influenced by ‘Sicario’s’, but where ‘Sicario’ knew when to include moments of levity and calm before the ensuing storm, ‘Soldado’s’ is much more consistently intense. It has some superb moments where it’s the soundtrack to a shootout or a chase sequence, but the overall impact isn’t quite as strong as the original.
That becomes a theme as the film transpires. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the film all the way through, but ‘Sicario’ felt different. It had the vision of masters like director Denis Villeneuve and cinematography legend Roger Deakins to guide proceedings to where they needed to be. Where ‘Sicario’ had “the scene” in form of the US-Mexico border traffic jam scene, or where it had “the shot” in the form of the US military silhouettes descending into darkness against the Mexican sunset, ‘Soldado’ doesn’t have moments like that. It has flashes of excellence, there’s a very well-done night vision scene in the first act, and there’s a very good shoot-out in the middle of a dirt road that’s shown almost entirely from inside a car. Director Stefano Sollima, a veteran of the highly rated Italian drama series ‘Gomorrah’, plays things safer than Villeneuve did, opting for functional shots rather than impressive ones. That isn’t to say there aren’t great shots and moments in the film, but it’s not as well-executed as the original.
‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ is a well-done film, it has great elements to it, mainly from its actors, but it doesn’t quite have the spark the original has, lacking the necessary subtlety to take on such a modern-day, real-world, hot button topic. I’ve read Sheridan say ‘Soldado’ is less a sequel to the original, it’s more of a standalone story within that world, and I buy that. I would like to see more of that. Take these characters, put them in a situation, see how it unfolds. It’s a good approach, because the further away from the original you take ‘Soldado’, the better it comes across.
I could’ve done without the final line, though.