Sicario: Day of the Soldado

June 29, 2018
'Please let me go home. I didn't think this movie would be so bad!' Isabella Moner in 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado'

If this were one of those reviews that run in a box at the side of the page it would read: “A relentlessly brutal and stupid film that does no-one any favours.”

The chief difference between this sequel and the original Sicario of 2015, comes down to two significant absences. Canadian Director, Denis Villeneuve, has given way to Italian, Stefano Sollima, who would be right at home with an old-fashioned giallo – Italy’s native brand of exploitation cinema. If Sollima hasn’t been able to make a B movie out of this flick it’s because the production values are far too good for the content.

The second omission is Emily Blunt’s character – FBI agent, Kate Macer. Scriptwriter, Taylor Sheridan is backing up, as are Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro as the amoral security operatives, Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick.

The first film was shocking in the way the ‘good guys’ broke every rule, dispensing their own form of justice at the end of a gun. Blunt’s role was to stand in for the viewer, constantly questioning what was going on, feeling horrified that so many lines were being crossed. She may have been an FBI agent, but she was also a naïve idealist in a milieu in which violence was perceived as the only way to solve a problem.

In Sicario: Day of the Soldado there is nobody to question any manoeuvre or display a few blood-soaked threads of conscience. Nobody except Matt Graver, at the very end of the movie: a singularly unlikely occurrence, given what we’ve seen of Matt’s credentials as a Sensitive New Age Guy.

Sheridan seems to have decided it was best to eliminate any nuances from the script to make way for more carnage. There is no real suspense because every gun fight, massacre and plot twist is telegraphed in advance. Our viewing pleasure consists of watching each inevitable bloodbath as it unfolds. The studio seems to believe this is sufficient for most viewers, as Sicario: Day of the Soldado is allegedly one of the “most anticipated” movies of the year.

Nothing seems too preposterous for the United States today but I’m still trying to get my head around the plot of this film, and the number of looming menaces it embraces.

The action begins with a night operation that interrupts an illegal crossing of the Mexican border. It seems the immigrants are Islamic terrorists who dash off to Kansas City for a suicide bombing raid. This leads the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) to call in Matt Graver to start a new ‘black op’, whereby the Mexican drug cartels are classed as terrorists because they helped the Islamists cross the border.

We’ve already seen Matt leaning on a Somali pirate, threatening to murder his entire family if he doesn’t co-operate, so we know he’s not the scrupulous type. The plan is to spark a war between cartels by kidnapping one drug baron’s small daughter, Isabel (Isabela Moner), and pinning the blame on his rivals. Yes, just the sort of thing you might expect the US Defense Department to do… if you’re a member of the Socialist Alliance.

Graver calls in his old compadre, Alejandro, who is still seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and daughter by the drug baron they are targetting. With the resources of the US government at their disposal the two buddies start a war, kidnap a little girl, and spread havoc.

While we’re watching this, a subplot shows us how Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) an American teenager of Mexican descent, is being groomed by a gang of people smugglers. We know the two plot-lines will have to converge, and they do so in a suitably implausible manner.

In the second part of the movie old loyalties are tested, fearful dangers endured. There’s massive loss of life, unspeakably evil Mexicans, thousands of bullets poured out of American automatic weapons.

The most engaging aspect is trying to work out why most of these things are actually happening. How does starting a war between drug cartels help the fight against terrorism? What was the actual plan behind kidnapping the girl? If Alejandro and Isabel are in Texas, why do they need to disguise themselves to be smuggled back across the border from Mexico? I could add another dozen questions to the list.

It’s equally confusing trying to find any moral or message. The film paints an ugly picture of the Mexicans, who are either ruthless criminals or “sheep” (as the people smugglers describe their customers). We see a US government willing to launch illegal, war-like operations on Mexican soil, happy to massacre and kidnap as the mood takes them. The American operatives are no better than the Mexican gangsters but with much better weaponry.

Presumably we are expected to see the repulsive Matt as a hero, on the basis that desperate times require desperate measures. Or to translate that into contemporary American argot: “To stop a bad guy with a gun you need a good guy with a gun.”

The entire mess feeds into the narrative of fear and chaos that Donald Trump is creating in relation to illegal border crossings, Latin American crime gangs and Islamic terrorism. It’s a convincing argument for Fortress America, surrounded by a great big wall. It may have the side effect of deterring people smugglers but by far the greatest benefit would be to protect the rest of the world from Matt and Alejandro.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Directed by Stefano Sollima
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener,
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine
Italy/USA, rated MA 15+, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 June, 2018