Though not as electrifying a piece as the first Sicario, Sicario 2: Soldado manages to feel just as relevant - with a few more loud bangs and crashes along the way.
With a debut screenplay from TV actor Taylor Sheridan, Denis Villeneuve’s original Sicario was a masterclass in sustained tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. Sheridan remains on script duty for this sequel but Villeneuve has moved on, as has original star Emily Blunt and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. This shift in creative personnel has seen Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro bumped up from supporting players to top billing. In the director’s chair this time around sits Stefano Sollima, a veteran of Italian crime drama both on TV and in cinema. Sicario 2: Soldado isn’t as visually impressive as its predecessor, lacking the vast scale of the Villeneuve-Deakins collaboration, and it has a wonky opening 20 minutes. But Sollima’s film recovers; though it may not quite be a match for the first, Soldado tackles relevant themes in a manner that is engaging and feels (mostly) authentic. It’s entertaining, often shocking, and leaves the door open for further chapters to this cartel franchise that would be far from unwelcome.
Soldado sees Josh Brolin’s grizzled CIA operative enlisted by the US government for a covert mission following a terrorist attack on American soil. He’s to start a war amongst the Mexican drug cartels, whom it is believed are aiding ISIS in smuggling potential terrorists across the US-Mexico border. The world of the Sicario films is essentially the world we inhabit today with all the joy and goodness squeezed out, leaving a distilled picture of moral bankruptcy and horror. The early scenes of a suicide bombing in a supermarket store are frank in their portrayal, particularly upsetting in light of the extremist violence that has blighted Europe over the last five years. The impact of this sequence is dulled somewhat by what follows, with Matthew Modine’s Secretary of Defence giving a hokey press conference about military retaliation that easily could have been ripped straight from a cheap TV movie.
With several different strands set up and jumped to and from, it takes awhile for the tone to settle. It’s clear quite early on that this isn’t going to be as nuanced or controlled a take on the cartels as Villeneuve’s film was, but the set-up reveals itself to be more interesting than first thought in what is a satisfying bait-and-switch. Brolin brings in Benicio del Toro’s ruthless assassin to kidnap the daughter of a leading cartel boss, played by the excellent Isabela Moner, and it’s the paternal relationship that develops between these characters – conveyed by the natural chemistry between Moner and del Toro – that provides a tiny bit of much-needed heart to proceedings. This trend of pairing off young female actresses with gruff middle-aged men (see: Logan, Stranger Things, etc.) always seems to have good results, with del Toro predictably terrific in the tortured father role.
There’s more action here than last time, but it never goes into full Rambo territory. Brolin and Del Toro seem indestructible, which lessens the grim sense of realism that the Sicario universe largely abides by. There’s a ridiculous plot turn that could sink many estimations of Soldado, but it’s ballsy in a dumb sort of way – and necessary for the future of the series. Musings on immigration and radical Islamic terrorism seem more relevant in the Age of Trump but the Donald himself gets no mention, thank God. With an expected aura of jingoism and some questionable racial stereotypes, it’s a relief that Sheridan concludes his piece with a demonstration of compassion. It’s a slightly Hollywood ending, yet this is almost necessary to escape from what is otherwise a moral (and amoral) abyss.
Soldado doesn’t maintain the intensity of the original – it certainly gets nowhere near the suspense of that border scene, or that dinner table ending – but it’s a decent follow-up. Dark, thrilling, and superbly acted, it signals a blossoming franchise that still has a fire in its belly.
Sicario 2: Soldado (2018), directed by Stefano Sollima, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate UK Ltd, certificate 15.