Sicario 2: Soldado

Cast: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Kenner

Director: Stefano Sollima

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


For those who go to the movies for escapism, Soldado is probably the last film they want to watch. Focusing largely on the tumultuous issues of the US-Mexico border, the film taps into many of the fears and disputes plaguing the US at this time. On the outset we are treated to charged depictions of suicide bombings which rank among the most agonising moments I’ve ever seen in a film. One attack occurs in a Kansas City supermarket where we see an unbroken take of a mother pleading for her young daughter’s life as she slowly edges their way towards the exit only for the both of them to be mercilessly blown to bits. It is a deeply horrifying scene and some would probably argue that it crosses the line into gratuitous brutality and unwarranted fear mongering but if there is a more harrowing and powerful portrayal of the true horror of modern-day terrorism in cinema, then I haven’t seen it. With imagery this daring and provocative, Soldado holds itself like a movie that has something urgent and important it wants to say. However, after having watched it, I’m still not sure what that is.

It is assumed that these attacks were carried out by foreign terrorists who were smuggled into the country via the Mexican border with some help from the local crime bosses. The US government responds by officially relabeling the cartels as terrorist organisations, giving their secret services the authority they need to fight back with unorthodox methods. Secretary of Defence James Riley (Matthew Modine) tasks Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) with stirring up some chaos in Mexico by pitting the cartels against each other and instigating a war that will disrupt their operations and keep everybody in check. Matt hatches a plan to kidnap one of the leading cartel kingpin’s daughters, a girl called Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), whose father just so happens to be the man responsible for the deaths of Alejandro’s (Benicio del Toro) wife and daughter, and convincing him that a rival cartel has taken her captive. Matt enlists Alejandro to get it done and assures him that there are “no rules this time”.

Those familiar with the original 2015 film will notice four significant absences in the sequel. Firstly is Emily Blunt as the smart but naïve protagonist who had served as the viewer’s proxy in the story (although, given how her introduction to this complex and dirty business turned out, I doubt there is anything on Earth that could have convinced this character to return). Secondly and thirdly are director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins who both did such a great job of finding the beauty and darkness in the US-Mexican landscape and in crafting some nail-bitingly tense sequences. Fourthly is the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose hypnotic score was crucial in constructing the film’s intense and morally ambiguous tone. All four are masters at their crafts and it would be a big ask for any replacement to live up to their examples. Yet Soldado devotes so much effort towards trying to mimic the original film’s style that the comparisons are unavoidable. I do think Sollima does a commendable job in the director’s chair, but at every turn I am reminded that nearly every element of this film was done better the first time around and with greater artistry.

Returning to author the screenplay is Taylor Sheridan, a writer who isn’t one to back away from complex political realities plagued by conflicting ideologies and nihilistic tenacity. In Sicario he led us down a rabbit hole into the tumultuous war on drugs where the cartels and US forces are as brutal and greedy as each other and are trapped in an endless cycle of violence that brings nothing but a fractured order and ruined lives with no reason or hope in sight. The film was clear in what it was criticising and part of the tragedy was that it couldn’t find any clear solution to the pandemonium, leaving the Emily Blunt character totally broken and defeated. Here he moves on beyond the drug war to American border security and Mexican migrant smuggling, a controversial enough subject made all the more complicated by the depiction of Islamic terrorism. Soldado hits the ground running in its provocative opening minutes with its images of migrants running across the border in the dead of night and of suicide bombers murdering American civilians in domestic settings, seemingly confirming every xenophobic Trumpian nightmare. The film then proceeds to try and challenge the mindset it has established but doesn’t do so nearly as powerfully.

There are certainly some strong performances and tremendous scenes (such as an ambush on a military convoy) along the way. Sheridan has always been a fan of the machismo of the Old West and here he has Brolin and del Toro to play the part. Brolin has just the right kind of face and physique to play these hard-boiled military men but here he adds in a strong unruly edge. He’s that kind of soldier who has to be kept on a leash by his superiors so that he doesn’t cause too much trouble, only now they’re letting him loose to do things his way. It’s a stock character, but its one that Brolin plays well. del Toro however is the star of the show. As the stonefaced, seemingly indestructible Alejandro, del Toro continues to find depth and nuance beyond what he’s given. His pairing with Moner allows for a compelling dynamic as the soldado who has previously had no aversion towards murdering children starts to see some of his own daughter in the child of the man responsible for her death. Thank goodness for their duel act because that’s really the only trace of humanity I found in a film that desperately needed more.

At first glance Soldado would appear to be a match for the first Sicario film. It has the same look and tone, the characters, the same themes, the same amount of violence and the same moral greyness. It walks the same walk and talks the same talk. What’s missing is the humanity and the introspection. We start off with two male antiheroes who have resigned themselves to their Sisyphean callings, and that’s pretty much what we end with. In the time between we never get any kind of meaningful reckoning with what it really means to live that kind of life. The question of whether justice and morality can exist in this kind of world is a fascinating one and this movie has either already decided that they can’t or it has no interest in finding out. Thus we are treated to two hours of blood and terror, often impressively and compellingly done, and in the end we have nothing to show for it. This isn’t to say that every movie has to have something important or meaningful to say, but if a movie acts like it does then it damn well better say something.

★★★

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer: Rian Johnson


The reception The Last Jedi has proven to be rather divisive, perhaps more so than even the prequels, and I must confess that I myself wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. In that kind of situation I think it is important to consider what exactly it is you expect of a film such as this going in. With The Force Awakens for example, with the prequel PTSD still making itself felt, I went in hoping to see a movie that looked, sounded, and felt like the Star Wars I loved as a child. If that meant playing it safe and recycling plot points from the previous movies then so be it because I walked out feeling elated in the way that only Star Wars can make me feel. This time, with my child-like faith now restored, I hoped to see a movie that would take more risks and would take the franchise in new directions. The Last Jedi did exactly that and it caught me completely off guard the first time I saw it. On the second viewing I loved it more than I loved The Force Awakens.

The film picks up immediately after Episode VII with what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the dearly departed Carrie Fisher), fleeing the First Order. A counter-attack by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) allows them a chance to escape, but Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and his fleet remain relentlessly hot on their trail. After an attack led (but not executed) by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leaves his mother incapacitated, Leia’s command is assumed by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Disapproving of her inactive strategy Poe, Finn (John Boyega), mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and BB-8 concoct a plan to disable the device that allows the First Order to track their fleet through light speed. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley), having arrived on Ahch-To with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and R2D2 in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), find him living there in a self-imposed exile, disillusioned by his own failures and with the teachings of the Jedi. It falls onto her to inspire Luke to complete her training and to help them save the Resistance from the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the First Order before it’s too late.

Making a great sequel is a tricky thing, especially with an iconic property like Star Wars. It’s a matter of making things feel old and new at the same time; giving the audience what they want and also what they didn’t know they wanted. The Force Awakens did this by reviving a familiar story while throwing in new, compelling, likeable characters. The Last Jedi does this in a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding way. It harkens back to the past, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes humorously, and sometimes unsentimentally, and provides arcs for the characters that parallel what we’ve seen in the original trilogy, but it also builds on the new elements that were introduced in the prior instalment and allows the torch to be passed into the hands that promise to lead the franchise into an unfamiliar but promising future. The movie tackles themes of legacy and questions whether the past is something that we should allow to shape us and define us or if it is something that should be rejected so we may be allowed to decide our own futures. The answer, the film shows us, is somewhere in the middle and it is fascinating to see how the it gets there.

This is evident in Rey’s anguish over not knowing who her parents are and not knowing her place in the galaxy and in Kylo’s agony over destroying those for whom he cares in order to forge his own destiny, two arcs we get to see mirror each other wonderfully in the telepathic conversations they share. Both feel broken and lost and they find within each other the potential to overcome their past traumas and build a greater future for themselves (for light and for dark). Luke meanwhile, having already grown from a young and naïve dreamer to a learned and capable warrior, is now old, cynical and haunted by his past in a way that Rey can recognise but barely begin to understand. Hamill delivers one of the greatest performances in the epic saga’s decades-long history as a Luke who failed to live up to the promises of Return of the Jedi and has spent the years since punishing himself for it. The fulfilment of his arc at the end is moving and profound in a way that only a story told over several years with a reflective, poetic sense of theme and character can possibly be.

The film demonstrates far more interest in telling the story it wants to tell rather than playing to audience’s expectations (not least of which is its complete and total indifference for fan theories), and that can be understandably unfulfilling and even alienating for fans who deeply love this franchise and its characters. Those who love the hopeful ending to Return of the Jedi and the state of redemption and enlightenment that Luke is able to reach after all he’s been through might not be able to reconcile themselves with this disheartened, pessimistic Luke whose triumphs were defeated by his own failures. But if we truly want Star Wars to continue and evolve as a franchise, we must necessarily open ourselves to ideas and directions that go against our expectations, whether or not we ultimately agree with and embrace the road taken. Personally, I found the direction taken by The Last Jedi to be not only great but also true to the spirit of the franchise and to the characters in it.

The debate over whether The Last Jedi is the best or worst movie in the Star Wars canon is one that will continue to rage many, many years after we’re all dead, buried, and forgotten, but everyone can surely agree that this is the most visually stunning Star Wars movie ever crafted. The set-pieces we see such as Snoke’s throne room, dominated by a shade of red so dreadful and sinister it could’ve been lifted straight out of a Roger Corman film, or the climatic battle on the salt planet, where the white surface is brushed aside to reveal an under-layer of crimson, almost as if the planet itself were bleeding, are masterpieces of colour and composition. Another visual highlight involves a starship going into hyperspace in a way that is as blindingly striking as it is emotionally powerful (and it involves a character we only just met!). Johnson, in my eyes, has secured this movie’s position as the best directed Star Wars movie in the series not just for his inspired visual realisation but for how he handles the story as well. Using the lessons he presumably learned from his tenure on Breaking Bad, he unravels the story with the confidence of a director who trusts that the different plot threads will come together and that everything that has been set up will come through, even when it appears the movie has seemingly miscalculated and leads us down a worrisome path. It all pays off in the end and is all the more powerful for having been doubted by us in the first place.

There are imperfections, as there always have been with Star Wars. The quest undertaken by Finn and Rose feels like more of an aside than it does a major part of the plot (even if it does ultimately get them where they need to be by the time we reach the climax), there is an early scene involving Leia that I’m still not sure how to feel about considering her untimely death, and the resolution to the conflict between Poe and Holdo doesn’t really make much sense. However, after the film’s marvellous work of character development done with Rey, Kylo and Luke, the bold story, the stupendous action, the sharp sense of humour, and all the emotionally overwhelming moments that follow, I’d have been willing to forgive a lot more. This is a movie that fulfils the promise of taking this universe into uncharted waters, expanding on the mythology in unprecedented ways, and bringing a beloved chapter of this franchise to a satisfying close so that we might follow it into a promising and exciting future. It is also an enormously thrilling, funny, moving film that delivers all a Star Wars fan could possibly want and more. As I beheld the image of a sunset that recalled Luke’s last night on Tatooine before the start of his great adventure, I felt that same sense of wonder, sensation and awe that makes Star Wars so special.

★★★★★

Sicario

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Sicario is an interesting example of how a film with a mostly one-note story and mostly one-note characters can be elevated in the hands of a skilled director. The narrative itself is not particularly remarkable or even memorable but the film does such a good job of depicting it that it somehow becomes captivating to watch. This isn’t to say that Sicario is a badly written film. It has some good lines, some interesting characters and a coherent story. It’s just that the story as a whole is quite unexceptional and would likely have made for a generic film in the hands of a generic director. However, through beautiful cinematography, subtle editing and the clever use of sound and lighting, Villeneuve was able to transform the film into a compelling thriller ripe with tension. I may not remember the ins and outs of the story and how it unfolds but I do remember being thrilled as it happened.

The film takes place within the context of the US-Mexican drugs war where FBI agent Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic agent with a strong moral code, is tired of the nominal raids she conducts that fail to make even the slightest dent in the Mexican cartel drug economy. She is enlisted by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the leader of a government task force, to take the fight where it really matters so that she might make a real difference in the escalating drugs war. Kate soon finds herself exasperated by the unorthodox methods the task force employs and by constantly being kept in the dark. Most vexing of all is having to take her orders from Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), an agent with a mysterious past whose brutal and violent approach weighs heavily on her conscience. As Kate attempts to uncover the truth about what this task force is really doing and really trying to accomplish, she falls deeper into a world of darkness and chaos that threatens to engulf her.

Again this story is not particularly noteworthy or outstanding. However I would be remiss if I did not take a minute to talk about del Toro as the fascinatingly furtive Alejandro. The way that he inflicts these cruel, ruthless methods with a cold, uncompromising gaze and a callous, deadpan expression is astonishing to behold. His character becomes all the more captivating to watch as we learn more and more about him and he leaves what is by far the film’s most memorable impression. Blunt as the protagonist does well enough to start with but becomes less and less interesting as the film progresses. Her arc as a naïve, inexperienced agent gradually coming to understand the contorted nature of the mission she has signed up for becomes less compelling as her character fails to exhibit any sign of growth. The lack of development or a refined personality meant that the actions and decisions of her character became more of a chore to follow as my interest diminished.

However the real star of this film is the direction. Villeneuve compensates for the film’s misgivings by having the film shot and constructed in a way that enhances the story. Not only is the cinematography beautiful to look at but also it is employed to communicate information and build tension in ways that other films of this kind do not. One scene near the film’s climax comes to mind where, without giving too much away, a massive raid is conducted and shot in a way that draws the viewer right into the action while still allowing a strong degree of subtlety and subdued tension. This is aided by the skilful way the film edits these scenes and the keen intuition and attention to detail that the film demonstrates through its use of sound. The sound of shells hitting the ground as Alejandro fires his silent pistol adds just as much to the conflict of any given scene as it does to the film’s authenticity. Therefore through artistry and skill the director and his crew were able to transform what could easily have been a standard run-of-the-mill thriller into so much more.

However, for all that this director was able to accomplish through creative ideas and clever techniques, this film is still far from perfect. The story is still quite uninspired and the characters fairly forgettable. It is mainly through the proficient direction as well as the inclusion of del Toro’s brilliant character that Sicario was able to leave a lasting impression at all. Having said that it is nevertheless one thing for an unremarkable film to be well shot and well crafted and another thing altogether for the editing and the cinematography to actually enrich the story beyond what was initially written, something in which Sicario succeeds admirably. It is an accomplishment that deserves to be recognised and deserves to be praised. This film is a strong testament to the assertion that a film is only as good as its director. Denis Villeneuve as it turns out is a very good director indeed.

★★★★