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.