It was hard not to be sceptical about Sicario: Day of the Soldado. It’s a sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s outstanding 2015 film, a film that gave no sign it was supposed to have a sequel.
The trailer, prominently featuring Benicio Del Toro firing a pistol like he’s playing Time Crisis, made it look like one of those unofficial sequels from people who slapped the name on an otherwise unrelated movie. American Psycho 2 and the two(!) Jarhead sequels, for instance. Sadly, that’s what this film is. It just has most of the original cast and a large budget.
It’s hard to discuss the film without discussing its politics, and the opening, featuring a crowd of migrants crossing the border, only for one of them to start chanting ‘Allah Akbar’ and blow himself up, is not promising. It’s the kind of strong but imprecise fear of foreigners that permeates Facebook comment sections.
After another terrorist attack, the US needs to retaliate. It’s up to Josh Brolin’s CIA agent to do so, breaking all the rules in the name of getting the job done. After killing a couple of members of a terrorist’s family as an interrogation tool (though only brothers, you wouldn’t want the audience questioning what he does) he works out that the Mexican drug cartels are helping ISIS. He brings in special forces soldiers, drones, airstrikes and his Mexican contact, the titular Sicario (meaning ‘hitman’) played by Benicio Del Toro to start a war between the cartels.
The idea of using the military in general and special forces in particular to stop the flow of drugs into the US is a trope as old as the drug wars themselves. They’re a staple of airport fiction like Frederick Forsyth’s ‘The Cobra’ and Tom Clancy’s ‘Clear and Present Danger.’ However, even those books understood that that was only part of the puzzle. This film does not have that nuance.
The first film was about the danger of fetishizing those ideas. The elite operators with night vision, huge guns and tactical vests were just spinning the wheel of the problem. The hard men making tough decisions were just kicking the can down the road in the name of increasing their budgets. The righteous avenger was a brutal mockery of that cliché. It was a film that subverted every expectation. Sicario 2 feels like the exact film that the first one was ridiculing.
The characters don’t even seem to be the same people. Brolin’s CIA agent, formerly a man who knew how absurd his role is, is now a hard man doing the right thing and making the hard calls. His plans are now necessary and would have worked if only it wasn’t for those meddling politicians. He’s even shot differently, always from the shoulders up.
Films should be judged on their own merits, and this is officially an ‘anthological sequel’ but Sicario 2 doesn’t even take place in our universe. It takes place in one where ‘soldiers (tactically) shooting all the drug dealers’ is the solution to the drug war. It’s also, alongside torture and murder, the solution in the Middle East. In past tense. It worked. I mean, it’s nice that, in their universe, something worked in the Middle East (presumably it’s at peace or something. They don’t specify, they just say that it worked) but it leaves the whole thing disconnected from our reality.
By the same token, it takes place in a universe where the cartels’ major income source is people trafficking and they move hundreds of people across the border every night (it isn’t. It’s meth, which they mostly manufacture in the US). It’s also a universe where nice Hispanic kids turned into scary tattooed ‘narcos’ overnight and blare angry rap music from their cars. Taken at face value, it’s less a mediation on the drug wars and more like an angry old man recounting the plot of an action film he didn’t see all the way through.
Politics aside (a film like this, in a time like this, is inseparable from its politics, but I digress) it’s still just not a particularly well-made film. The score is the same menacing tones with occasional percussion right through. The camera never seems to have any specific point of view in any scene. In one of the few where it does (an ambush scene) they had the idea to film it all from the point of view of a little girl in the back seat, but didn’t follow through on it. In fact, the action scenes in general are kind of lazy.
Also, can someone tell film makers what Mexico City is actually like? It’s a massive, heavily policed metropolis of 20 million people or so with a lower murder rate than Boston, and the film has people executing raids and hits in the middle of the city and escaping so easily that they don’t even show how they did it. Come to think it, all the geography south of the border is vague.
This film doesn’t need to be the original, which is one of the best films of the last few years, but it doesn’t even clear its own bar. It doesn’t even seem to know what that bar is. It has little to say and says it in a dull way. It even bails on what looked like a genuinely surprising, interesting ending. At least it’s consistent.
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