Friday 13 July 2018

Sicario: Day Of The Soldado (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After discovering a possible link between the Mexican cartels controlling the U.S./Mexico border and a string of stateside terrorist attacks, the U.S. government is prepared to take special measures to control the problem. To that ends, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) brings Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) in to create some chaos among the cartels and, hopefully, put a stop to the terrorists they're smuggling across the border.

Brolin is once again very capable as the unnervingly aloof CIA officer, keeping the same level of emotional detachment that made his run in the first film so memorable. However, part of that veneer gets peeled back this time around, as we get a surprising peek at the man behind the image which manages to let in a slice of complexity in his performance without it betraying his character as a whole. Opposite him, del Toro maintains the grizzled and vengeful father aspect of his character alongside his cold-blooded efficiency in the action scenes. His interactions with some of the newer characters extends that into him becoming a rather twisted parental figure, leading to some pretty solid emotional moments. Catherine Keener as Graver’s superior is an unfortunate damp squib, same with Matthew Modine as the Secretary of Defence; both work well enough in setting up and expanding the main plot, but not so much as characters in their own right.

Isabella Moner, finally being attached to a movie worth her talents after the triple-header of Middle School, Transformers: The Last Knight and The Nut Job 2, is very effective and shows a lot of preternatural strength as the daughter of a drug kingpin. She gives a definite sense that, if given the opportunity, she could act circles around everyone else in the frame, which might explain why she ultimately isn’t given much to do. And Elijah Rodriguez as the teenaged Miguel, even though he’s essentially filling the same place in the narrative that Maximilliano Hernández’ Silvio did in the original, does pretty good at showing yet another aspect of the Mexican cartel’s methods and span of influence.

While there’s some argument to be made about why a sequel (and possibly another one after this) was greenlit for Sicario, especially since it technically already has a trilogy attached to it thanks to Hell Or High Water and Wind River, credit to writer Taylor Sheridan for making this feel like it has a reason to exist. Expanding on the morally dubious tone of the original, he goes into how the U.S.’s reaction to the threat of Mexican cartels is comparable to their reaction to terrorist threats. Even though this comparison leads down some potentially questionable paths, given how heated the real-world discussions surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border and ISIS have been getting, he does well enough at keeping things in a decided moral grey area to keep things from getting too uncomfortable. He also manages to build on his depiction of the U.S. government, showing them as more interested in creating chaos than establishing order to achieve their goals. Hell, even some of the dialogue carries the same near-lyrical flourishes that Sheridan showed in Wind River, like with Graver’s line “if you want to start a war, kidnap a prince; the king will do it for you”.

So, the writing keeps to a certain standard that the 2015 film set up for itself; what about the visuals? Well, we don’t have Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair this time around, nor do we have God’s gift to the camera Roger Deakins as the DOP. Instead, we have Italian director Stefano Sollima (ACAB: All Cops Are Bastards, Suburra) and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Martian, The Walk, War Machine). Sollima’s direction puts a greater emphasis on grit than tension this time around, with the depiction of the border being one full of grounded unease that seems rather to-the-point. On top of that, we have Wolski’s frequent use of long takes to make the action scenes and even some of the quieter exchanges between characters feel smoothly paced.
However, it seems that the attempts to try something new and try to stay with the original aesthetic are rather at odds with each other. Since Sollima’s intent is far less concerned with slow builds and increasing of tension, part of what made the first Sicario so gripping, the elements of that film that remain here feel… out-of-place. We still have the lumbering snarl of a soundtrack, this time provided by cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir who worked with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson on the first film’s score, but it doesn’t fit next to a film that doesn’t carry the same pulsing menace in its pacing.

That sense of disconnect also goes extends to the direction vs. the writing, where neither end up coming out for the better. One of the bigger reasons why Villeneuve and Sheridan were such a good match the first time round was because they shared a certain understanding of what their audience was capable of digesting. Villeneuve’s methodical pacing meant that he knew the audience could keep track of certain smaller details, while Sheridan’s scripting focused more on the characters than the story or even dialogue meant solely to explain the story. Sollima manages to nail the surface details of the story, namely the subversive neo-Western tone of Sheridan’s storytelling, but without any of the true depth that made it stick. Even with a similar premise surrounding cutthroat drug cartels, rarely does this film reach the utter chills of the 'bodies in the walls' sequence that kicked off the original. At times, it even feels like the visuals and the writing are directly at odds with each other, given a few moments where what we’re seeing and what we’re being told don’t exactly gel together.
On top of that, Sheridan’s writing may show the improvements he’s made since 2015 but it also isn’t quite as clever as way back when. For every solid line of dialogue, there’s a character standing in the frame that feels included just for the sake of it, since the returning characters get some fleshing-out while the newer ones feel like they’re fighting to get their chance in the spotlight. It boils down to a lot of really good components that end up rubbing each other the wrong way when put together.

All in all, while definitely a solid feature in its own right, it just can’t escape the shadow of the first Sicario. The acting is mostly solid, with Brolin and del Toro getting a chance to further their characters while Moner gives a lot of promise as one of the new ones, the soundtrack is still fantastic and the visuals give a definite mood, but between Sollima’s decidedly more urgent direction and Sheridan’s less consistent scripting, this follow-up ends up in an unfortunate place of both being too close and too far from what made the original film work so damn well. Those wanting more of Sheridan’s textured take on neo-Westerns, or even just a good action-thriller, will find things to like about this… but it ain’t the original.

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