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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Hell or High Water

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Hell or High Water is a modern Western. It is set in a rustic Texan landscape made up of small, washed-up towns scattered around an endless desert where most of the inhabitants live an unassuming, rural lifestyle. The age of the cowboy is long gone and so is the sense of romance and mythology that came with it. There are some of the trademarks in this film that we would associate with the classic John Wayne cowboy movies like bank robberies, shootouts and men with badges, but it doesn’t have that same classical feel to it. Much like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, this film harkens towards a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore (and maybe never even existed in the first place) where men lived by a code and where justice and honour always won over cowardice and infamy. Now the world is older, the morality is greyer and the people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to the modern way of things have been left behind. This is the setting for Mackenzie’s brilliant, elegiac film.

Two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two, and Tanner (Ben Foster), just released from prison, have begun a campaign of bank robberies, focusing on the branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Although these robberies have been carefully planned, the executions tend to go awry due to Tanner’s reckless, changeable nature. Still, they get away with the money and proceed to a casino in Oklahoma where it can be laundered. The case for these robberies is handed to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled, veteran Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As he pursues their leads, Hamilton focuses his investigation on determining the brothers’ methods and personalities in order to anticipate their next move.

What I really liked about this film was how natural and organic everything felt. The film was in no rush to get through the slow parts so that we could enjoy the more thrilling chapters in the story, it all unfolded over a steady, even pace. Moments were allowed to play out, the atmosphere was allowed to sink in and the characters were allowed to breathe. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film have absolutely no bearing on the plot, such as when Hamilton and Parker are greeted in a restaurant by an unsmiling, jaded waitress who, instead of asking, informs the men what they will be having for lunch. It is a wonderfully low-key moment that perfectly encapsulates the antiquated, melancholic nature of the world that these characters live in. That moment and the others like it are why the film is able to be deep and insightful without being pretentious. They are raw, subtle and utterly authentic.

As the two brothers Pine and Foster have never been better. Pine, who some might underestimate as another Hollywood pretty face, plays against type here and shows himself to be as much of an actor as he is a star. As Toby he plays a quiet and unassuming man, someone who isn’t a saint but who also wouldn’t get himself involved in this kind of activity unless he had a good reason. Meanwhile Tanner, played by the chameleonic Foster, is a loose cannon. His reason for robbing these banks is the same as his brother and he’s smart enough to know that their best shot is to stick to the plan but, while Toby is apprehensive about what they are doing, Tanner is clearly enjoying himself way too much. Bridges is predictably perfect for the role of the ageing lawman, but what is surprising is how well he and Birmingham play off each other. The banter between them is often unflattering and, in Bridges case, politically incorrect, but it comes from a place of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. The two are like an old married couple, they can barely stand each other but there’s no one they’d rather be partnered with.

Those are just the main performances. One of this film’s best qualities is that every character, from the main to the side to the one-liners (including the aforementioned waitress), is impeccably cast and memorable. That, I think, is one of the reasons why this film feels as fresh as it does. Even though this film takes a familiar concept from an established genre with a long and rich cinematic history, it never feels like the film is just going through the motions. Through strong acting, compelling storytelling and beautiful cinematography, the film is able to take some of the hallmarks of this genre and make them feel fresh and natural. Anyone who has seen a Western before will probably anticipate the climatic shootout that will inevitably take place, but the film exists so strongly in its own world that it doesn’t feel like an obligatory convention of its genre, it feels like an intrinsic part of the story.

★★★★★

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.

★★★★