“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”
Directed by Stefano Sollima
Denis Villeneuve’s initial offering in what is now, most definitely, a series, “Sicario,” was not at all the kind of film that lent itself to a sequel. If anything, it came off as an international indie. I wasn’t as big a fan of it as most people were, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t riveting and well executed. It most certainly was. No, my main issue was that Villeneuve switched protagonists on us two-thirds in to the film, leaving us to wonder who the third act was for. But, as we now know from his subsequent releases, “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” (and to some extent, his Best Foreign Oscar-nommed “Incendies”), time and narrative are very fluid for him. And, as a result, they just don’t lend themselves to what we think of as “franchise films”.
So, with that in mind, halfway through I decided that instead of trying to find a logical connection from one to the other, I would have to separate them. Because, as confident an effort as Stefano Sollima’s “Sicario 2” may be, stylistically, it has very little to do with the first, other than sharing characters and…y’know…cartels. No, this film is an almost straight-ahead drug cartel thriller. And through that lens, it’s pretty effective. The setup – or bridge between the two – is almost comically cliche. However, once we get to the action of the caper, the story starts to take back some control. And by the end of the film you feel like you got your money’s worth: an exciting story, with committed actors playing their, granted, stock characters with multi-dimensionality, and a SPECIFIC protagonist who, while brutal, possesses a heart of gold (think “Logan”, but with emotional claws).
Now, I have no idea what the film is trying to say, nor should I, I suppose. The first film was about how altruism has no place in the hopeless and chaotic world of the drug trade. By comparison, this is an action flick whose only greater purpose seems to be to ensure we’ll go see “Sicario 3: Beneath the Planet of the Soldados”. Again, no judgement there. A good thriller is a good thriller, and while much of the tension comes via the film’s score and Dariusz Wolski’s photography, this is that. Toward that end, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give legendary Hollywood scriptwriter, Taylor Sheridan, a large dollop of credit (that creaky first act, and the ABSURD call to another sequel in the film’s final sixty seconds, notwithstanding)!
HOWEVER, it seems rather bizarre to take a lead character from one film – a character fueled by rage and hatred, incapable of unearthing his own humanity, and make him the guy in the next film that is the only character with humanity. Benicio del Toro is fantastic in this film, don’t get me wrong. The lines on his face, his every tiny move, his vocalizations, are all borne of necessity, not impulse. It’s a brilliant performance to be sure, and the best reason to see the film. Yet I kept wondering where the sudden shift from abject brutality to understanding of a grander purpose came from? It’s one of the main reasons I spent so much time trying to connect the two films. Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, on the other hand, is the more logical callback because he isn’t really tasked with a need to show a human side. Alas, Catherine Keener is playing the exact same covert government agent boss-lady role we’ve seen a million times (ie. Joan Allen in “Bourne Supremacy”). It would have been great to see her given more to do. Jeffrey Donovan adds his usual solid character work to Brolin’s team. The great Mexican actor, Bruno Bichir, practically steals the entire film in his four minutes of screen time as deaf farmer, Angel. And the two kids in the film, Isabela Moner and Elijah Rodriguez, give the film its heart…or its crazy jumping off point from the first film…depending on how you look at it. Regardless, they are both terrific.
One of the elements I was most concerned about was how Sollima would find a way to effectively refer to the BRILLIANT Oscar-nommed music from the first film, penned by genius Johann Johannson, who recently passed away very unexpectedly and at a very young age. Smartly, he contracted Johannson’s some-time writing partner, Hildur Guðnadóttir, to complete this score. Where the first film’s music was reminiscent of Eno-era Bowie (specifically “Sense of Doubt”) and was filled with themes befitting the big-message film Villeneuve crafted, Guðnadóttir’s work pulses at a very low frequency, adding to the general unease needed for a thriller of this type, while still occasionally recalling the overall melodic tension of the first. It’s not exactly the greatest listening, but it sure helps move the film forward, especially during its ridiculously cliched first act. It’s very well placed film music.
Again, if you’re looking for a continuation of the first film in feel, tempo and message, you’re going to be very disappointed (as many, many critics were). But if you can let it all go, sit back and observe the ride for what it is, you’ll find yourself sitting near the edge of your seat for the last three quarters of the film. Near, not on. But, it’ll do.
Written on July 9, 2018