Back in 2015, every element of the first Sicario was perfect. That murderous tale about the drug wars on the USA/Mexico border was impeccably orchestrated, even including the timing of its release.
Emily Blunt played honorable FBI agent Kate Macer who sought to bring down a drug cartel that killed members of her unit. The female protagonist up against a hornet’s nest of vicious men presented a gripping challenge and was the perfect set up for a storyline that took the audience deep into a world of unconscionable criminals.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated for Arrival) provided a depth in the storytelling that was never less than compelling. Blunt and supporting actor extraordinaire Benicio Del Toro were hailed for their riveting performances. Oscar nominations were bestowed on the music, cinematography and sound editing. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan received a well-deserved Writers Guild of America nomination. Previously, few if any films had ever forayed into the chaos and dynamics of the drug trade and illegal border crossings. This crime/drama/thriller, in its own fictional manner, well-exploited the subject.
Three years later Sicario: Day of the Soldado receives a theatrical release, minus Villeneuve and Blunt. The vulnerable female protagonist that audiences could pin their hopes on is missing. The director who instinctively adds sensitivity and tone to his films is gone. This sequel stands in the large shadow of its predecessor and comes along at the wrong time in history. That said, it is still engrossing.
The cartels along the Texas/Mexico border have started trafficking terrorists into the U.S., which becomes obvious when some radicals head into an American department store and blow themselves up, killing innocent people. In a roguish attempt to stem the tide, Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) gives federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) the authority to do things his own way. The agent is onboard 100%: “If you want to see this through, I’m gonna have to get dirty.”
Graver enlists Alejandro (Del Toro), a Mexican ex-prosecutor, in a treacherous and subversive scheme to start a war among the cartels with random assassinations and kidnappings that will stir the pot. Alejandro, whose family was killed by a cartel, seeks vengeance. The wrinkle in the execution of their planning occurs when the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), a crime lord’s daughter, goes awry. Then it’s every man for himself.
Taylor Sheridan’s script sets the unique and distinctive characters in motion. You don’t doubt their motives or steely determination. Or the betrayals and backstabbing that follows. A subplot involving a Latino teenager named Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a coyote who smuggles immigrants over the border, does little to soften what’s on view. He’s a kid being dragged into a very inhuman underworld where desperate people are finding any way they can to get into America. Yet this parallel storyline, which eventually intertwines with the main narrative, brings little humanity whatsoever to what you witness.
Sometimes timing when a film is released is almost as important as making it. When a project has been in pre-production for years, however, there is no way for writers or producers to know what the climate will be when their movie debuts. Releasing a film now about immigrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border in the dead of night without shining a light on why they’re taking such risks is like pouring fuel on a raging fire. Considering recent events, where the government has been separating immigrant children from their parents, on some levels this movie hits a dissonant chord.
There is one scene that seems to add a bit of empathy to some of the characters: A gun-toting Alejandro is on the lam with Isabel. They stumble across a very poor man who lives in a desolate area of Mexico. They seek asylum, water and food. He is mortified by their presence. He is also deaf. Alejandro knows sign language and the two communicate. It’s as if the world stops, the bloodshed is a distant memory and karma is in the air.
Director Stefano Sollima first came to prominence in the film industry for a 10-episode Italian TV crime series he directed called Gomorrah (2014-16). It was released in the U.S. as a feature film. The stark realism in that series/film, with its unbridled ruthlessness, was jaw-dropping. He brings that same brutality to his retelling of the Sicario story. Bullets pierce flesh, blood is spilled on sidewalks, people are killed without mercy, bystanders are slaughtered and the rhythm and orchestration of the events are done meticulously. There is scant morality in Sheridan’s script, and what little there is seems to be negligibly developed by this very talented director.
The musical score (Hildur Guonadottir, Mary Magdalene) drones along in an ominous way that makes you feel like peril is imminent. The cinematography (Dariusz Wolski, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant) keeps your eyes cemented to the screen and features a great use of overhead and aerial shots. There isn’t one moment in the footage that doesn’t seem well accounted for (editor Matthew Newman). Tech credits are solid.
Brolin, who appeared in the original film and is reprising his role, has made a good career playing brutes (Deadpool 2, Milk). Once you see his face on a screen, you know that if the character he’s playing has to go to a dark place, Brolin will take you there. But even an actor of Brolin’s stature seems out-classed when sharing the screen with Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro (Traffic). Del Toro’s dedication to the individuals he portrays is second to none. His commitment is total, his emotions run deep. With glances, tirades and movement he makes Alejandro’s persona indelible. In one scene, when it looks like he’s run out of options, he gains a second breath and takes viewers on what could be a final confrontation. Mere mortals would not know what to do, but the way Del Toro plays the hitman on his last legs, you know that any rival he encounters is in a world of trouble.
By the time this ultra-violent tale ends at 122 minutes, you are emotionally drained by the carnage. This sequel may not have the sheer power of the first Sicario or the same artistic flair. It may not explain why so many desperate people migrate to the U.S. And, the ending may not satisfy all your needs for a suitable payoff. But…
The perilous journey you’ll take with Sicario: Day of the Soldado is never boring, predictable or unimpressive—even if it’s overshadowed by its predecessor and not as perfectly executed.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.