Matt Graver: “You’re going to help us start a war.”
Alejandro: “With who?”
Matt Graver: “Everyone. No rules this time.”
With this kind of sentiment and a bombastic trailer it wouldn’t be unexpected to think that Sicario 2: Soldado would be action-packed, ramping up the conflict from Denis Villeneuve’s original Sicario. However, what transpires didn’t quite live up to that billing.
CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is brought back onto US soil to stop the people trafficking of the drug cartels into the United States as the US Administration attempt to close this passage for illegal immigrants and the suspected terrorists (and which is ultimately shown to be a moot point). Beginning in shocking style which gets the point across quite bluntly, we are bludgeoned with the impact of what is happening along with the equally concussive way that Graver and his troops operate in order to get results required. We are in no doubt that this is a man who gets things done, no matter the cost.
This potentially explosive thread, combining the political and the social repercussions that mirror some of the policies that are currently being put in place, loses out to a more narrow, focussed plan and all of this potentially rich plot is more or less forgotten. The lack of insight into the politics behind the plan leaves a feeling of being a bit flimsy which is strange given screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s ability to fuse this into his scripts in the past, allied to Stefano Sollima‘s tendency for tying together social and political context into his work.
With the cartels being classified as terrorist organisations Graver has free rein from his superiors, the Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and CIA Deputy Director Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), to do what is necessary with no strings attached and this means only one thing: reconnecting with his old Sicario buddy Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). Devising a plan to create a civil war between rival cartels, Graver and Gillick put their plan into action, which works well to begin with but gets torn apart before it can come to fruition.
Sollima (ACAB, Suburra) is accomplished in creating his action sequences and building some moments of tension but, surprisingly, his characterisation is off. Graver and Gillick were weighty players in the original Sicario, their presence being felt across everything but in this they seem like a weaker version, losing that extra dimension as they focus more on the action and violence rather than the end-game. These two were a driving force previously but in this they were, bar a few scenes, mere shadows of their former selves.
The cinematography was always going to be a hard task to follow the exceptional work done by Roger Deakins but Darius Wolski (Alien: Covenant, The Martian) does some good work in recapturing this harsh but wonderful environment but never quite manages in attaining the level of Deakins’ work. The overhead motorcade shots and the sweeping movement of the helicopters are really well done and had me anticipating something special about to occur. Hildur Guðnadóttir has done a fantastic job of recreating Jóhann Jóhannsson’s astoundingly imposing score, but again it feels like a facsimile of the original, not branching out but treading a very similar path.
Taylor Sheridan I am a huge fan of. His work on the original Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River are superb examples of how to get the most out of the interaction between characters, bringing them to life and giving them depth even without saying too much. However, in Soldado, Graver and Gillick aren’t anywhere near as charismatic or intimidating, even with their extra screen time and extra action sequences. Because of this extra screen time they have lost some of their mystique which lead to them being such an unknown quantity previously and thus never knowing the depths to which they were capable of going to. Conversely, giving more time to Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan) is a welcome touch as he at least breathes some life into his scenes and Isabela Moner is fantastic as Isabela Reyes but isn’t given too much to do after a superb opening in which Sheridan’s writing shines, but it is too few moments like Isabela’s confrontation with her Headmaster that makes this fall flat.
Another motorcade related action sequence was the standout scene for me, and it might not be as tense or as drawn out as the border crossing sequence in the original but it at least felt similar in its execution with violent and devastating results. It is to Soldado’s detriment that action of this calibre never really surfaces again. The thing that made Sicario work was the ability of Villeneuve to extend these periods of tension and adrenaline, keeping the pressure on whilst almost nothing is happening, however here nothing happening felt exactly that: there was no underlying stress or tension as neither main character captured your sympathy or left you rooting for them.
Overall it is a good effort and I was willing it to excite and to elicit some of the sustained tension of the original. Sollima, Wolski and Guðnadóttir all do a good job of taking on the story and feel of Sicario that Villeneuve, Deakins and Jóhannsson created but never quite manage to elevate this above a run of the mill sequel to what turned out to be a surprising hit and one of the best films of 2015.