Skip to main content

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado
aka
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" how things really are.


There's been criticism that the picture’s mere existence feeds into the edifice (wall) of scaremongering regarding Mexico and illegal immigration. But equally, it would be an optimistic expectation that a movie focussing on the cartels would find the time to present a positive, balanced image of the country and its people. Added to which, Sicario 2 is expressly fuelled by the essential corruption of everything that is institutional USA, be it off-the-books activity sanctioned at the most senior level, incursions into foreign territory to enact illegal acts or hands-washing and loose-ends tying-off when operations don’t go quite as planned. Is it responsible to make something that may feed into the arguments of those pointing fingers? Probably not, and I'd be more willing to defend it against such a charge if the picture displayed an abiding intelligence or perspective amid the tried-and-tested pulp tropes. 


The trigger for returning Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is the Secretary of Defence's (Matthew Modine) desire for a persuasive response when cartel-smuggled suicide bombers lay waste a Kansas supermarket. The resultant suggestion from Matt Graver (Josh Brolin)? Start a war between cartels and so get them to wipe each other out. It’s a somewhat spirited-out-of-nowhere plotline, and one must assume it was a desperate attempt on the part of Sheridan to find a "What if?" that would lead to a politico giving carte blanche. Hence the later reveal that the suicide bombing is actually by American citizens. This might have been used as a blackly comic twist if it wasn't all-but lost in the melee, or even as a purposeful piece of misdirection à la WMD (something patently untrue used to justify an action), but since the operation is undercover that would only work as something specifically designed to manipulate Modine. There's a overriding air of jacked-up, Tom Clancy laziness about the device, but Sheridan isn't short on such shortcuts to plausibility.


The biggest of which being, in an age where even Hollywood is making movies about CIA drug running (Kill the Messenger, the recent Tom Cruiser Made in America), are we really supposed to buy that they'd go ahead with the instructions of the DoD and do something that might put a serious cramp in their ability to continue creaming off all those unofficial funding sources? Sheridan, in his bid for an authentic tone has omitted a key ingredient that would lend credibility to the cynicism of his anti-heroes.


As for those anti-heroes, he only makes matters worse for his title character by fleshing out Alejandro’s already ludicrous characterisation.  A man who didn't hesitate to gun down a drug lord's wife and sons in the previous movie now gets all sentimental over another drug lord's daughter? Why? Because she evidently reminds him of his own dearly-departed bairn, and for the purposes of this instance can make the distinction between a drug lord and his offspring. As a consequence, he goes against his stone-cold code and Graver's instruction. 


The biggest point in the character’s favour – and in Graver's – in the first movie was his completely amoral perspective (in terms of presenting him "legitimately"). Take that away, and you have just another surrogate father tale (Mercury RisingLoganLast Action Hero ad infinitum). Now to be fair, this plotline itself works reasonably well, but Sheridan is effectively telling us the guy we fully understood Emily Blunt wanting to kill in the original is alright, really. Does Sheridan actually think these guys are good guys? Despite everything they do? Is he someone destined to work closely with Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg in the not-so-distant future? Well, he has family in law enforcement, so I shouldn't wonder.


This humanising extends to Graver by osmosis. He wouldn't usually hesitate to kill kidnapped drug lord's nipper Isabela (Isabela Moner, previously sexualised by Michael Bay in the triumphant Transformers: The Last Knight), but out of respect towards his dear friend, he decides not to. We’re now so far into the realm of Hollywood cliché that earlier turnabouts by Modine and admonishments from Catherine Keener seem entirely believable. On the other hand, who was director Stefano Sollima trying to kid from the first, when he has Alejandro reveal his face to a cartel lawyer on a busy street in Mexico City before killing him? How long can that kind of flagrantly frivolous vigilante/hitman make a fist of things? Outside of comic books, where he usually wears a mask. 


There are other issues with the progression here; Isabela becomes largely passive (emotionally) once captured, a gauge of moral temperature rather than a character. Nevertheless, del Toro's such a good actor (and without a silly stammer here, even more so) that the bonding sequences are largely strong ones, particularly their encounter with a deaf peasant.


The picture's most laughable development comes after coyote – people smuggler – Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is required to execute Alejandro by boss Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, probably resigned to playing despicable Mexicans, with this and Goliath in quick succession). Alejandro goes down, apparently lifeless. But we can’t help but notice he's been shot in the lower face, possibly only through his cheeks. Just what are the chances of that? Well, as I noted in my review of the original, Alejandro is pretty much Batman, so quite high in all honesty. It's precisely the sort of death-defying development that would befall a lawyer turned kickass ninja hitman. Come on, is anyone taking seriously the idea these movies are actually about something? 


Sheridan even goes as far as setting up his would-be assassin as Son of Sicario or Sicario: The Next Generation (Blame it on Sicario?) for the inevitable sequel. In their favour, there's a sustained tension running through most of the Miguel scenes, a (relatively) innocent young guy dropped into people smuggling over his head, promised riches but likely to fall foul of border patrols and if not them a psychotic boss. Early scenes, such as his cousin trading insults with an acquaintance across the river/border as police car glides by, have an easy verisimilitude that's far more potent than the ominous perma-rumble of Hildur Guðnadóttir's swampy-industrial soundtrack.


Brolin's great in early scenes when unflinchingly called upon to kill a potential informant's family by drone strike, or meeting with Secretary of Defence and all but cracking open a beer as he enjoys the show and tells them how it is, but simply less interesting when it’s time to show he's also a compassionate, feeling kind of guy. Jeffery Donovan and Shea Whigham are wasted in a cameo and undercooked support respectively. 


Sheridan justified his sequel with the thought "I sure would love to see what happened if these guys didn’t have a chaperone", going on to comment that Sicario was about the militarisation of the police and the sequel's next logical step was to remove that policing aspect. In both respects, he rather fails to find anything to dig into, neutering the potential of the leads unleashed by locating their moral centres and never building anything – in its predecessor either – into a coherent conversation regarding the latter. And yet, despite these fundamental problems, Sollima has made Sicario 2: Soldado a frequently gripping movie. Just don't call it authentic.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…