Artful Chaos on the Mexican Border – Sicario 2: Soldado (Film Review)

Rating:

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was a brutally relevant bowie knife to the gut, when it was released in 2015. Tackling the ongoing crises on the Mexican border, focusing on the tense, often violent relationship between federal American forces and the Mexican cartels, it was a tour de force of political filmmaking that still took the time to delicately explore its subtle, amoral characters.

However, to everyone’s surprise, a sequel was announced: no one looked at Villeneuve’s original and saw the “franchise” neon lights sparking up as a result of its artistic merits. And yet here we have Sicario 2: Soldado, a film that welcomes back Benicio del Toro’s reclusive yet smooth hitman Alejandro and Josh Brolin’s brash, at times brutal federal agent Matt (Emily Blunt’s Kate doesn’t make a return, unfortunately). So, does it warrant its unexpected arrival? Does it live up to its socially aware predecessor? For my money, surprisingly, yes.

Without much recontextualisation following Sicario, Sicario 2: Soldado reunites Alejandro and Matt for a new mission. As a result of a rise in terrorist attacks just past the Mexican border, Alejandro and Matt are asked to shake the hornet’s nest: kidnap cartel drug lord Carlos Reyes’ daughter, Isabela (Isabela Moner) and use her as a bargaining chip for the purposes of turning the numerous drug cartels against each other. However, as with any film of this ilk, not all goes to plan.

Now, looking at this synopsis, one wouldn’t be remiss from suspecting the validity of its politics: linking ISIS, the Mexican cartels and American soil, Sicario 2: Soldado might as well lead with the subtitle ‘Trump’s Wet Dream’. However, I’m pleased to report that, first and foremost, Sicario 2: Soldado is more of a morally grey take on its subject matter than its synopsis might suggest. Neither the American nor Mexican side of its political border are given any leeway: there are difficult decisions to be made, ethical battles that refuse to go the way they should, selfish motivations that start to take hold. It’s all incredibly captivating and shows a level of maturity lacking in the majority of big screen blockbusters released this Summer.

It’s all helped along by technical prowess that somehow lives up to the incredible credentials of the original. Stefano Sollima (of the television adaptation of Gomorrah fame) takes over directorial duties from Villeneuve and does an admirable job of maintaining the bleak, cynical worldview of Sicario. Dariusz Wolski, the cinematographer behind this year’s gorgeously shot All the Money in the World, also manages to find enough interesting angles and perspectives to match Roger Deakins’ superlatively slow camerawork in the original. And writer Taylor Sheridan continues to impress as the commentator on Western issues: with Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River and now Sicario 2: Soldado, he’s making a fearless name for himself in constructing engaging thrillers with a deeper stream of social awareness running through their blood streams.

That being said, it lacks the confident pace of the first. Whereas Sicario valued subtlety and violent elegance, Sicario 2 is louder, brasher. It’s in keeping with its subject matter: these are big issues that demand scope to discuss. But for my money, tonally, a more delicate touch was needed. There’s no mistaking that this is a bleak, brutal film, unafraid to show humanity at its worst. And, at times, its brutality threatens to mar its intended effect: to make us reflect.

Not that its lead actors would know, because Del Toro and Brolin continue to lend understated yet superlative work to the characters they’d established in Sicario. Del Toro sweats silent charisma as Alejandro, a dangerous yet human hitman that, despite his questionable methods, remains relatable due to the haunting power of his deep complexion. Brolin, on the other hand, utilises his chiselled, worn features to tell Matt’s own story: a story of a man forever on the fringes of the law, struggling to decide right from wrong, yet fully aware of the impossible position he’s in. With stellar supporting work from Isabela Moner and Catherine Keener to boot, and Sicario 2: Soldado shows itself to be an acting showcase, as much as it is a violent indictment of Western politics.

Overall, Sicario 2: Soldado is a solemnly fresh breath of air in a Summer wholly dedicated to quippy comedies and over-the-top action. Its grounded, authentic approach to filmmaking is welcome, more than matching Villeneuve’s original film. Furthermore, its political underpinnings are worthy of their inclusion, probing just enough to get the questions rolling off the tip of the tongue once the credits roll. Its broader, bang-for-your-buck tone sometimes gets in the way of its artful subtleties. But, with such a talented cast at the top of their game and relevant themes dealing with the here and now, Sicario 2: Soldado somehow lives up to its promise.

Dir: Stefano Sollima

Prd: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith

Scr: Taylor Sheridan

Cast: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener

DOP: Dariusz Wolski

Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir

Sicario 2: Soldado is in UK cinemas now.