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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).