In my review for Sicario, I noted that I had some difficulty shaking the movie so to speak, because seeing it in theatres had been such an impactful, resonant experience for me. I ended that review by saying, “It is assuredly an openly nihilistic (in the best way possible), unflinching examination of the thin grey line that separates wolves from sheep, and hunters from the hunted, with one hell of a bloodthirsty, tortured man in Alejandro dragging us blindly into a realm where darkness reaches out to darkness with battered hands and consumes its soul. And ours.”, and I think that ruling also applies to its sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which plays a lot less like your average movie sequel, and much more like the intended standalone spin-off that was being advertised.
A group of suicide bombers walk into a crowded Kansas City grocery store and murder 15 innocent people, including a mother and her young child, during the most disturbing and frightening sequence in either Sicario movie that lets you know immediately, this will be a significantly darker venture than what came before. The American government suspects that Mexican cartels are now illegally transporting Islamic territory across the border (sound like anyone we know?) and in reaction to this suspicion Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) gives CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) carte blanche to combat the increasing threat of these ruthless cartels. So of course Matt calls up his “big dog”, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), to help him wage a war between the major cartels, which includes killing a high level lawyer for one of the cartels, and the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the cartel kingpins. In time, things go south fast when the President issues an order to the CIA to abandon the mission and erase all proof of American involvement in the false flag operation including Isabela, pushing Alejandro into brutal protector mode having bonded with her, pitting him against Graver and his team.
By now you have likely heard that for some, the absence of Sicario director Denis Villeneuve, the late composer Johann Johannsson, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the Kate Macer character portrayed by Emily Blunt, is deeply felt throughout the entire running time of the movie. While Roger Deakins may not be the name behind the camera, Dariusz Wolksi does a remarkable job emulating the style and palette of Deakins’s work on the first movie, while also projecting a grittier, grimier image that adds to the low-key realism of the film, and the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir does a fine job of emulating Johannsson’s magnificent, dread inducing score of Sicario. Filling in for Villeneuve, Stefano Sollima successfully replicates the same style, atmosphere, and tone of the first movie, in a way that allows us to feel like we are back in that same world, but experiencing it through a different set of eyes.
There is no doubt in my mind that both Kate Macer, and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), could have been incorporated into Soldado in a multitude of ways if the script had gone in a partially different direction, much to the appeasement of those who were unable to see past their absence (more specifically, Kate’s absence), citing it as a major downfall of the movie. The question I have for those same naysayers is, how? How do you make her return feel natural and organically constructed, and not forced and unnatural?
Having seen the direction Soldado (which means “soldier” when loosely translated from Spanish) travels in without Kate (and Reggie), there is no denying that Soldado would have been a vastly different movie altogether had the character been brought back. Perhaps in the script for the impending third Sicario movie there is an opportunity to bring her back. Perhaps she experiences a personal loss or attempt on her life by the hands of the cartel, compelling her to become a Sicario like Alejandro. Maybe she joins Matt Graver’s task force because Alejandro was right, and nothing made sense to her American ears, she doubted everything they did, but in the end understood why it happened. Maybe she has no place in that movie either. Who knows? What I do know is, in my eyes her affiliation with Alejandro and Matt came to a close before Sicario ended, just as Alejandro told her the last lines of the movie: “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” Sure, I would have enjoyed her presence in this standalone spin-off, I do not doubt that Blunt would have knocked out yet another terrific performance, and Soldado would have been better for it, but I’m perfectly okay without her being there.
I disagree with the notion that the violence of Soldado is in any way, exploitive, or over the top, or unnecessarily ugly, which differing opinions suggesting that the movie only contains this violence because the filmmakers weren’t smart enough to convoy anything else, and not because it needed to be there. Obviously the violence is in service of the plot, and it occurs naturally so. In Sicario, the task force operated within a particular set of rules of engagement, including not firing unless fired upon, which we saw come into effect during the notorious border scene. Here in Soldado, carte blanche allows them to kill freely, so when they swiftly execute a truckload of gang members as efficiently as they did those border crossing cartel members, without having to be fired upon, it inherently creates an ugly aura to the violence, perfectly befitting of the new rule free, carte blanche perspective of this horrific crime infested world established in Sicario.
As one would expect from the next Sicario movie, the performances across the board are once again top notch. While actors like Jeffrey Donovan (reprising his role from the first movie), Matthew Modine, and Catherine Keener add gravitas and depth to their supporting roles with subtle nuances in their physicality, and grounded, authentic delivery of dialogue, it’s the principal trio who will take the most credit for truly knocking it out of the park. Anyone underwhelmed by Isabela Moner in Transformers: The Last Knight (which I haven’t seen, yet) will be pleased as punch to see her impress with a performance that elevates what could have been another in a long line of shallow kidnapping victim performances. Josh Brolin still so effortlessly manages to tow the thin line of playing someone with an intimidating record and a hefty amount of authority, who can be coldly serious, calculated, and unflinchingly, efficiently brutal if need be, while also projecting a relaxed “Chill out bro, let’s go catch some waves,” kind of attitude that allows Matt Graver apt exist within the Sicario world as a multi-dimensional character, and not merely a one-sided archetype.
I hold particular fondness for the way in which Taylor Sheridan writes Alejandro, and the subtle way Del Toro has portrayed him across both films, and has stolen every scene he’s been in. He cuts through any given scene (and both movies in their entirety) like a hot knife through butter, a true scene stealer but in a quiet and controlled manner. One might be inclined to incorrectly categorize the performances as minimalist, with so few lines because he convinced both Villeneuve and Sollima to allow him to remove lines so he may play in silence more often, adding to the allure and mystery of the Sicario while his powerful performance, quite often nothing more than the look in his eyes and/or the expression upon his face, helps us see the living layers within the man. The softness we first saw from him in Sicario, that showed care in how Kate was feeling after the attack on her, comes through all the more in tender scenes between him and Isabela, and during a delightful scene with a deaf man.
Make no mistake, the cold ferocity is still boiling like molten lava within him, it’s just that we are privileged to see more of the man who used to wear that skin long before the land of wolves tuned him into one.