I’ve already mentioned in previous reviews why I think Taylor Sherdian might be one of the greatest screenwriters of our current generation. His return for the sequel to 2015’s critically acclaimed Sicario is pretty much the only reason why Sicario 2: Soldado made my list of most anticipated films of 2018.
But even I have to admit that Sicario’s brilliance wasn’t just down to its screenplay. The indisputable skills that director Denis Villeneuve, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (who was taken from us far too soon), cinematographer Roger Deakins, and lead actress Emily Blunt, all contributed to the film’s success. A perfect combination of individuals that led to them catching lightning in a bottle. And while Soldado doesn’t ascend to those same heights, it still manages to make something well worth watching.
The suicide bombing of a grocery store in Kansas City leads to a drastic shift in US policy towards immigrants who cross the US/Mexican border. Because evidence suggests that Islamic extremists are being smuggled across the border by Mexican drug cartels, Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) tasks CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) with solving the problem.
Due to the impossibility of stopping all illegal immigration, Graver decides the best course of action is to start a war between the drug cartels. To ensure the success of his mission he hires hitman Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to assist him.
Their plan? To kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a major drug king, before placing the blame on a rival. This should result in the opening of hostilities between the drug cartels. But as they say, sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Due to the long gestation period of most movies, it’s not unusual for a film’s plot to be set in stone years before we even see a frame of footage. Because of this it’s impossible not to appreciate the incredible coincidence when comparing Soldado to the current immigration situation on the US/Mexican border. Both are essentially about a government sanctioned plan to take children from their parents purely in order to achieve a political aim. The only real difference is that the people in Soldado are competent at their jobs. 😀
Seriously though, the sequel’s change of focus from drug trafficking to people smuggling does help give a much needed streak of humanity to the proceedings, particularly when considering how cynical the movie eventually gets. Morality is always a tricky line to tread, but now that we don’t have the guiding light of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent, Soldado fully commits to how terrible human beings can become in the pursuit of a greater goal.
But such commitment means that the movie occasionally struggles to make us empathise with its character’s goals. Without Blunt’s audience surrogate/conscience character, much of the movie feels content to wallow in misery, with no hope of justice to balance it out. It’s not impossible to get over. After all, there are many movies where terrible people prevail, but it does leave a sour taste in the mouth.
It’s also hard to avoid the notion that Soldado isn’t quite as tightly-structured as its predecessor, especially when it comes to its subplots. While Sicario felt like a blend of big and small stories perfectly intertwined to create an intricate tapestry, Soldado feels like it has a strong central arc surrounded by more perfunctory narratives. For example, a subplot of an American-Mexican teenager who aspires to be a hitman is noticeably underdeveloped, making his importance in the third act rather forced.
In addition to the weaker script, most notable is the loss of several of the more prominent members from the production team of Sicario. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir comes out best, doing a fantastic job in reflecting and interpreting the dark and ominous themes from the original. But director Stefano Sollima and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, though accomplishing great things, can’t quite reach the heights of their predecessors. As such, Soldado never attains the same sense of dread and tension that was present throughout the original.
The most successful aspect ends up being the actors, with Brolin and Del Toro sliding comfortably back into their roles. The brilliance of their performance is in witnessing how these men act when they are merely small cogs in a much larger machine; as opposed to the first film where the duo wielded significant power behind the scenes.
A special mention must also be made for the youthful Moner. While she’s already experienced in the action genre because of her work in Transformers; her feisty yet vulnerable role here echoes the similar performance we saw from Dafne Keen in last year’s Logan. A future award winner if I ever saw one.
It may never reach the peaks of the original Sicario, but Soldado is still a pretty solid piece of cinema. With great performances accompanying a dark and contemporary plotline, not only is Soldado a strong sequel, but it also initiates much anticipation for Sicario 3.