Sicario was the first film which led me to realize a few crucial things. The first was that Dennis Villeneuve was a wonderful director that could adapt his skillfull direction to different projects that had a level of dread at their core, as he achieved with the excellent Prisoners and brilliant Enemy earlier in the 2010s. The second was that in Emily Blunt, who is one of the best actors working today, Sicario had a sympathetic character that was both an audience surrogate and the fulcrum the film needed in order to work. Lastly was the fact that the guy who played Deputy Sheriff Hale in Sons of Anarchy had written one hell of a script. Having Roger Deakins on cinematography didn’t hurt either.
Tellingly, all of these components that made the first film so good are absent in Sicario 2: Soldado. Villeneuve’s formal control has been replaced by the competent, and nothing more, work of Stefano Sollima. Taylor Sheridan’s script is clumsy to the point of insulting – to give you an example, the main reason why the events of the film take place is walked back on in one line of dialogue that obliterates the meaning and momentum of the film up to that point. But most crucially, there is no character that fulfills the Emily Blunt role. This shouldn’t be a big problem, especially since we have the likes of Josh Brolin’s shadowy FBI agent: the sandal-and-cargo-shorts bluntness of Matt Graver, and his operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) as the titular assassin to fill the gap. Except not one of these characters work as a lead the way that Emily Blunt did in the first movie, none of them offering the depth of connection that her vulnerable, emotionally mature performance managed.
The plot is a fatal mix of simple but convolutedly executed. Brolin’s character is brought in to disrupt the activity of two rival Mexican drug cartels, one of which seems to be sneaking ISIS agents over the border to commit suicide bomb attacks. His plan is classic Fistful of Dollars territory: he and Alejandro will kidnap the teenage daughter of one of the Cartel leaders, who also happens to be the man who gave the order to have Alejandro’s wife and daughter killed, in the hopes of stirring up trouble between the rival cartels. The problems begin right away. In the first movie, Alejandro murders the man who killed his own family, an act that slammed home just how brutal he is and how out of her depth Blunt’s character was. His motivations in this movie revolve around a similar revenge fantasy, except the head of the cartel who he’s apparently gunning for never even as the decency to turn up in this film. It’s retreading old ground, limiting Del Toro’s performance and crippling his character development.
There is a lot about Soldado that feels half-finished, and in terms of sequels, it is definitively a classic case of a diminished return. While audiences love anti-heroes, it’s really hard to root for these characters: Brolin’s introduction involves him bombing the family home of a hostage with barely a hint of remorse, rendering him more straight villain than antihero. The first Sicario taught us that this fight is filled with villains, and while Soldado promises us that these bad dudes are going to be taken off the leash, this exploration of the villainy of the supposed good guys never materializes.
Soldado might have been a better film without the comparison to the first – the story and motivations might have been clearer, the characters might have been more engaging, the direction less workmanlike. But all we are left with is a sequel that is too blunt to be interesting, and too mediocre to be entertaining.
By Kevin Boyle