Master filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) crafted an incredibly atmospheric, intense thriller with Sicario. The film boasted fantastic performances from Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin; a strong screenplay from Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River); potent cinematography from D.O.P. maestro Roger Deakins; and an unnerving score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. Sicario wasn’t the type of film that called for a follow-up, and less for one without Blunt, Villeneuve, Deakins and Jóhannsson. And yet, somewhat surprisingly, Italian helmer Stefano Sollima (Gomorrah, Suburra) has managed to deliver a gritty, worthy follow-up to the 2015 film.
Sans Kate Macer, Sicario: Day of the Soldado continues on with Del Toro’s vengeance-driven, gun-for-hire Alejandro Gillick and Brolin’s brute, strong-headed federal agent Matt Graver. The two team up again after a series of suicide bombings rock the country, the apparent result of Mexican cartels smuggling in terrorists over the Mexican border. Graver is tasked with upping the conflict between the Mexican cartels – by any means possible. “You want to see this thing through, I’m going to have to get dirty,” he tells Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine). “Dirty is exactly why you’re here,” comes the response. Cue Graver hiring Gillick to kidnap the daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel leader. Suffice it to say, things don’t unfold smoothly once she’s taken.
Sheridan’s screenplays often deal with the evil that people do, the role the land plays, and how the law works/fails around it all. It can be a little hard to find the hope and silver linings among his works, and perhaps Day of the Soldado is the most pessimistic script he’s delivered thus far. This is a world that’s full of those out for themselves, of people that are willing to do anything it takes to make money or to drive home their ideologies, of narrow-minded leaders who shrug off collateral damage, and of the innocent and guilty that pay the price as it all plays out. This… is the real world.
Indeed, the very timely issues the film deals with means the film works on a bit of a different level to other Hollywood thrillers. With immigration and terrorism often at the forefront of media, one would be forgiven for being a little uncertain of how to take the “thrills” this thriller holds. Some may take issue with certain angles the film decides to look at these issues from, but I’d suggest looking at this for what it is: a hard thriller with well crafted action, that carries with it a sobering taste of the ugliness occurring in certain sectors.
If this film is any indication, Sollima could be in for a promising career in Hollywood. Firmly staying in the tonal lane formed by Villeneuve, Sollima shows off formidable control of his medium, delivering muscular filmmaking with attention to detail, choreography and geography, with some nifty camera work thrown in, all without calling too much attention to it. Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski also follows his predecessor’s path nicely, lensing the landscape and the carnage to eerie, almost beautiful effect. Yes, in many ways much of the creative team – including new composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who collaborated with Jóhannsson a number of times – are stepping in the footprints left previously, but they do manage to leave their own marks. Besides, this isn’t a sequel that would benefit from a tonal and texture shake up.
While Blunt was undoubtedly a strong force in Sicario, her absence isn’t a hindrance. It’s easy to take when the narrative picks up without her, continuing on with these two men as the never-ending conflicts around the border continue to bring in and spew out bodies. The always reliable Brolin is imposing as ever as Graver and gets more to flesh out as he finds the situation falling away from his control. Del Toro gets the meatier part though, and he’s pitch-perfect here, providing oh-so small hints of emotion as the film progresses. Neither man is easy to read, and there’s no real “big acting moment” from either, but they’re great performances from two pros. Moner is quite good as well, boding well for her future in the biz.
The plot unfolds at a consistent pace that engrosses for most of the two-hour runtime. Unfortunately, there are a few plot developments that come off the back of some frustrating coincidences and “lucky” circumstances – contrived moments in a narrative that progresses somewhat naturally for much of the film. A sub/side-plot with a young Mexican teen (Elijah Rodriguez) living in the U.S. close to the border doesn’t have the impact it really should, and his evolution in the latter stages doesn’t quite feel earned. Also, the film’s final, surprisingly on-the-nose moment doesn’t feel as satisfactory as it perhaps read on paper. They’re problems, no doubt about it, but they don’t prove too costly.
It’s a harsh film with jarring moments of brutality that, by the time the credits arrive, leave you feeling numb, which may be the point. Just what the film has to say about what’s happening, or if there’s anything for it to even say at this point, can be debated, but there’s no denying the craftsmanship on display here. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a tense, ultimately bleak action-thriller that works as a solid follow-up to Villeneuve’s film while also standing on its own. The end suggests that there may be more to come, which is more than okay with me.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★★☆
‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ opens in Australia on June 28 and opens in the US on June 29.