Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin Return to Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s Drug War
DIRECTED BY STEFANO SOLLIMA/2018
Not so long ago, when one considered which recent films might parlay nicely into a franchise, Sicario probably didn’t spring to mind. Fortunately, the film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, was not of this persuasion.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 original remains an aptly bleak look at the condescendingly authoritarian means employed by its cast of U.S. Drug Enforcement agents as they operate in Mexico. Though well received and masterfully shot, Sicario is also a bit unsure of itself, insomuch as which of its three characters it favors, or where it’s headed.
The first Sicario bore an unrelentingly dour score by the late Johann Johansson, music that could be mistook for the sound of doom raining down in an industrial garage. An appropriate creative decision, if not exactly choice playing for ones next holiday gathering.
That first film focuses on the baptism-by-fire experiences of a young DEA border agent played by Emily Blunt. No sooner does she get into her very first assignment than she’s forced to process an uncovered house with its walls literally stuffed full of cartel murder victims. Her rookie character is the functionary of Josh Brolin’s character’s entitled and grossly empowered Captain Graver. Along the way, this sandal-wearing, seen-it-all lawman makes her realize the twisted morality that so often comes with their job. Is he a villain? Is he right? What will become of this jolted up-and-comer??
Don’t look to the sequel for answers to her whereabouts; Blunt, and her character, are nowhere to be found in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Being that the movie never knew what to do with her anyway, one can’t claim that her absence is all that glaring. What we’re left with are her two male costars, Brolin as Graver, and more apropos, Benicio Del Toro as Graver’s trusty Mexican informant, Alejandro.
Both Graver and Alejandro have seen too much to ever truly function in ordinary society. The grey (or downright dark) areas they’ve resided in, exploited, and even helped on occasion to create have swallowed them whole- a fact that’s not news to anyone, nor even new news. They’re two of a kind, always in each other’s orbit even as they share very few scenes together in Soldado. Nevertheless, it’s a focal narrowing that’s successful, as this new film is a leaner, more engaging affair.
Also not returning for this second trip across the border is director Denis Villeneuve. Stefano Sollima, best known for his work on the television series Gomorrah, helms Day of the Soldado, delivering a film that is both more accessible and more immersed in itself. There’s a harsh visual grit about Soldado, The shadows seem darker, the terrain seems all the more vast. The music is by composing newcomer Hildur Guðnadóttir, a terrific piece of raw tension in and of itself.
What is repeated is perhaps the most memorable bit of business in the original, Graver’s fleet of DEA vehicles sweeping through customs at sixty miles per hour, as entitled as they are devoted. This is maneuver, witnessed in both films from an arial follow-shot, might as well be labelled “the Sicario shot” from now on. Per the plot, thrown into motion by no-nonsense American authorities played by Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener, Graver is gunning to concoct a cartel war wherein the Mexican do-badders will destroy one another. Caught in the fray is Alejandro, on his own and on the run with a young girl (Isabela Moner) in tow.
It’s true that this unexpected Sicario sequel has stumbled into particular relevance due to the ongoing news of outrageous conditions in U.S. border detention facilities, but in truth, it needn’t be the day of the Soldado for such a thing to occur during the Trump presidency. One could almost throw a dart at a calendar and hit a date wrought with immigration-related atrocities. The bottom line, though, is that this follow-up effort is not only a decent and hard-hitting film, it’s an improvement on its predecessor.
As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn tweeted, “At a certain point, Sicario: Day of the Soldado tosses out the gruff military stuff and just becomes a lean action-adventure vehicle for Benicio Del Toro, and therefore a much better movie.” At this point, it’s probably no surprise that Sheridan sets things up for another sequel at the end of this one. That will be one movie that won’t have to be smuggled across the borders of audience expectations.