“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (2018)

Drama/Thriller

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Running Time: 122 minutes

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Stefano Sollima

Featuring:  Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Donovan, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Alejandro: [to Isabela] “You have no reason to trust me, but trusting me is how you’re going to survive.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the release of “Sicario” (2015) three years ago not only announced a few new talents but also solidified quite a number more in front of, as well as behind the camera, it also was possibly the most underrated film of that year. It should have scored multiple Oscar nominations but for the most part flew under many peoples radar which is a crime. On the surface it was a film about drug cartels, revenge as well as the journey of a young idealistic DEA agent, of course it was much more than that as well as a precursor to the unruly politics that would follow just a year later. It also stated that the war on Mexico was just beginning, one that would not only rage at the border but on nightly television, ultimately right now in the White House itself. “Sicario” was that rare breed of film that had at its heart a female protagonist surrounded by men who were undermining her at almost every point, it had a well thought out plot as well as an almost Cinéma vérité narrative but with a look that was stunning in its widescreen lushness and not afraid to, at times pull back for the big picture eschewing star power and good looks for some kind of grittiness even though at times it was still a Hollywood film. The one aspect of the film that was overwhelming was that I know when I saw it I wanted more, now three years later the sequel has arrived, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (2018).

On the surface this sequel may seem like a real mixed bag, undoubtedly the star of the first film has returned in Taylor Sheridan the screenwriter, who has gone from strength to strength in his career having written the magnificent Oscar nominated “Hell or High Water” (2016), writing and directing his magnificent noirsh “Wind River” (2017) as well as the upcoming series “Yellowstone” (2018). Also returning are the definitely now great character actors, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin and Jeffrey Donovan in the same roles. Unfortunately there is a downside with the loss of Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt, Daniel Kaluuya, Roger Deakinsand Jóhann Jóhannssonare all not returning which does lessen the impact of the sequel but it is still a fascinating affair to be sure. What is great to see is that new fresh talent has replaced these non returnees to the betterment of the film overall.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” has been directed by Stefano Sollima an Italina filmmaker who is possibly best known for directing a large proportion of the series “Gomorrah” (2014 – ) based on the film of the same name, so the subject matter is not far removed from this new film. The great aspect of both films was to have foreign directors in charge as it always seems to be a benefit to politically charged movies, that to have someone removed from the situation in charge, opens up the narrative as well as the plot in ways someone who has a stake in the subject matter might do. This is accentuated by the look of the film, here Deakin’s has been replaced by Ridley Scott’s long-time cinematographer Dariusz Wolski who like his predesscor is an expert at creating both interior as well as exterior palate that are not only original but subject sensitive and eye catching.

The film is set fter discovering that Mexican drug cartels are smuggling terrorists across the United States border, the CIA sends Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and former undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to eliminate the problem. They kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a drug lord, in a false flag operation designed to incite war between rival cartels. The mission goes awry when it is discovered by the Mexican government, prompting Graver to order Reyes’ death; when Gillick refuses, he turns rogue to protect her as Graver assembles a new team to hunt them both.

The quality of the leads goes without saying in Oscar winner Benicio del Toro who has become one of the great character actors as well as someone who can play physically imposing men that with the subtly in his face can play deep emotion, while Josh Brolin has aged well into his middle age and someone who knows how to build a character from the ground up, one need only look at his increasingly complex roles over the past five years to see the evidence in that. While they are both playing the same characters from the first film, it is del Toro who is the one with real growth especially when thinking about his arc from “Sicario”. Added to the mix are Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener, Mathew Modine, Shea Whigam and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo who all play new characters designed to reinvigorate the film with the light shining directly on Moner as the maguffin of this new story. Moner has to show a range of very tough emotions as well as starting her character in one place of dominance but winding up with her persona changed in a very extreme way with layers peeled back for all to witness. The other relative newcomer is Manuel Garcia-Rulfo who like his co-star is a changed character from beginning to end, something that is a very rare to witness not just in film but also for minority characters that are normally marginalised or reduced to stereotypes. All of the actors do incredibly nuanced work with material that is not only complex but much of the narrative just have been found in the edit so to see performances as good these is rare indeed.

There is no doubt that this is a narratively as well as plot heavy film that rewards those that stick with the complex goings on within the story, following different characters at different times with varying objectives as well as never losing sight of the human drama at the core of this challenging piece of work. The ways in which the story begins to unfold on different fronts of the world may seem scattershot but they are executed in a way that the audience witness how in the dark, law enforcement can be losing sight of the people they are trying to protect so that lines are blurred between the good of the many against destroying the rights and loves of the few, especially when we are talking about cross border skirmishes. For me the key to the film is the returning character of Alejandro Gillick who as we know from the previous entry lost his family to the drug war in particular one cartel leader who is one the plot points of this film. In fact the key scene and one I imagine the writer loved creating involves sign language, a family in the middle of nowhere and a small explanation of his past which for me was one of the two best scenes of the movie. This is a film loaded with meaning as well as motivations of everyone involved, one scene sees Matt Graver going to meet the Secretary of Defence a comment is made about him being sunburnt as he is always in the field carrying out covert actions. The next scene we see a roomful of Generals and politicians, it is easy to see the pale faced men who make decisions sending the tanned men out into the danger to do the dirty work, something that should not be lost on viewers especially as we hear and see these politicians changing their minds on a whim without a thought of those doing the work in the field. It could also be seen as a comment on those holding high office especially the Presidency who have never served in their life.

As far as this years films go “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is one of the best so far, it is a truly great sequel that stands on its own in every way. It transcends the first film in that it is about so many elements of not only human nature but incorporates social, political and personal issues that are as relevant today as they have ever been. We see the fingers of the White House through an unnamed President who fears impeachment over public support or anything else, sound familiar? Another important aspect of the film that cannot be underestimated is the mix of genre that takes place within its narrative, at points it is a road movie, a drama, a political movie, a thriller and at times even has some comedy, it melds all these genres into one coherent narrative that never lets up from its shock beginning to its almost ultimate conclusion that is at once revealing, shocking but expected.

This is a film that must be seem and seen on a big screen it takes risks with its plot and narrative which pay off for the audience it is almost all believable in its own way with nary a false move which is something to behold. Even though it is missing some key figures in front of as well as behind the camera, the screenwriter has wisely pivoted the plot to make it more of an original movie with familiar characters than attempting to make it a fully fledged sequel which seeing this movie now would have been a major error. I recommend this even for those that have not seen the first movie as it stands on its own in almost all ways which is not something that can be said of all movies even though that is how it should be, something that has been lost over the past few decades.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is out now only in cinemas.

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