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 guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

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.

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.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

Now we shall keep our mysterious rendezvous.

Ice Station Zebra (1968)
The fourth big screen adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel, Ice Station Zebra was released in the same year as the more successful Where Eagles Dare. 1968 represents probably the high water mark for interpretations of the author’s work, although The Guns of Navarone remains the biggest hit. As with most movie versions of MacLean novels (or, let’s face it, movie versions of anybody’s novels) fans of the book find much to gripe about; the latter half diverges greatly from the page. Those who complain about the languid pace are onto something too. To be sure, there’s an array of valid criticisms that can be levelled at Ice Station Zebra. But it also has a factor going for it that elevates John Sturges’ movie, and keeps me coming back to it; the über-cool presence of Patrick McGoohan.

The man who played The Prisoner (he filmed Zebra during a break from the TV show, which helps to explain the only truly hopeless episode in the run; Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, …