I loved the original Sicario. It was an unexpected kick in the pants that took an unstinting look at the ethical ambiguities of the fight against the cartels. Emily Blunt was the perfect foil around which the story unfolded. The ending was unremittingly bleak. Supported by taut writing by Taylor Sheridan and an incredible score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, director Denis Villeneuve brought his usual vision to the film. It was deservedly one of the National Board of Review’s top 10 films of the year for 2015.
So now comes the sequel, of sorts, in that two major characters return, Sicario: Day of the Soldado. There is much to like about this film in terms of the acting, the pacing, score, and cinematography. It also is timely in that it deals with both terrorism and illegal immigration. Unfortunately, while it is quite entertaining in places, it ends up losing momentum and focus halfway through, as the script fails the characters.
The movie begins with a group of people sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border. One of them blows himself up with a hand grenade. Cut to Kansas City, where multiple terrorists enter a supermarket and die in suicide bombings. At the border, three prayer rugs are discovered.
The U.S. government, led by Defense Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine), vows to crack down on terrorism. Operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) from the first film is recruited to find out what is going on. He ends up in Djibouti, where he interrogates a Somali who was paid to let a ship get by his pirates, a ship which ended up docking in Mexico. The Reyes cartel is to blame.
Graver devises a scheme to sow discord among the cartels so that they can destroy each other. He travels to Bogota, Colombia, to recruit his old frenemy, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), for this effort. Conveniently, the Reyes were the overlords of the lower-level kingpin who, with his family, Alejandro executed in the first film for killing his own family. So Alejandro has incentive to participate.
After an initial hit in broad daylight in Mexico, the plan is to abduct the daughter of Reyes, Isabel (Isabela Moner). She then is brought to a holding station under the pretense that she was rescued by the U.S. Feds from her original kidnappers.
In a side story that eventually intersects with the main thread, in the border town of McAllen, Texas, we meet Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez). Miguel is recruited by a relative to work for Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who is smuggling people across the border.
A plan is hatched with Mexican operatives to bring Isabel back into Mexico and transfer her to them so that they can create more havoc. On the way to their rendezvous, a group of Mexican Federales working for the cartels attack the convoy. So now a high degree of chaos ensues.
Benicio del Toro gives his usual excellent understated performance as Alejandro. Let’s face it, he is even great in the ad for Heineken. Josh Brolin also does a good job reprising his role as Graver. Isabela Moner does admirable work as a frustrated and scared teenager in over her head. Other characters do not fare as well. Miguel and Gallo are both underdeveloped as is true of every other person in the picture.
Director Stefano Sollima has a good sense of pacing as the film moves along at a perfect clip with rarely a dull moment. The action scenes are enjoyable and well-executed. The cinematography is superb: some of the overhead aerial shots reveal a beautiful geometry of form.
The score, composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, is wonderful. Ominous droning coupled with intense percussive sounds instill a sense of dread and anticipation. There is a nice tribute in the credits to the previous composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson.
The real drag comes in the script. The sequel is again penned by Taylor Sheridan, who did a fabulous job directing and writing Wind River and writing Hell and High Water. As the movie gets to a crucial juncture, the action becomes more and more contrived.
As an example, Isabel is their major asset being transported across Mexico. In the confrontation with the Federales, no one pays attention to her so that she could be protected during the firefight. She is able to run away unnoticed into the desert. In a similar vein, considering what a tight operation Graver has run up to this point, it seems unlikely that he would find himself in a situation where he has so little control and where the risk is so high to his asset.
The end scenes also strain credulity. There is no sense of the willingness to face hard realities as in the first film. The final scene is a blatant set-up for another sequel.
The movie does do an excellent job portraying the tough realities for those paying to cross the border. In these times of high rhetoric regarding this issue, it is nice to see a view which shows people as human beings caught up in a complex circumstance.
The ultimate verdict may be that this is a film that did not need to be made. But the chance for profit was too great so a story that was not as compelling as the first one was created in its stead. Perhaps it would have been different with a focus just on the future lives of either the characters of Alejandro or the agent Kate Macer played by Blunt.
Nevertheless, if you like action, fast pacing, and the actors involved, this is an entertaining film. It is just not a necessary one.
Rating: Three stars
In SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, the series begins a new chapter. In the drug war, there are no rules – and as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border, federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose family was murdered by a cartel kingpin, to escalate the war in nefarious ways. Alejandro kidnaps the kingpin’s daughter to inflame the conflict – but when the girl is seen as collateral damage, her fate will come between the two men as they question everything they are fighting for.
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Keener
Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Written by: Taylor Sheridan