The follow-up to Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed US-Mexico border thriller couldn’t have arrived at a more sensitive moment in real world politics.
Soldado heralds the return of Josh Brolin’s CIA agent Matt Garver, again teaming up with ex-cartel assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) to deliver kidnapping, murder and grisly gun battles to America’s unfortunate southern neighbour. This time round the focus has been switched from the illegal flow of drugs to, you guessed it, people – apparently now more lucrative and morally reprehensible than smuggling Bolivian marching powder. A bombing by a suspected Islamic terrorist group in a border town has given the Department of Defence casus belli to let slip their dogs of war, orchestrating conflict between two rival cartels via the false flag kidnapping of a cartel lord’s daughter (played by Isabela Moner). Predictably this goes awry and Alejandro must get her back across the border on his own. A revealing subplot follows Mexican-American teenager Miguel (played by newcomer Elijah Rodriguez) and his entanglement with the trafficking bandits along the border.
It is hard to deny that Soldado is missing much of what made the original such a taught and uneasy thriller. Villeneuve was unavailable due to scheduling issues and had worked pretty much non-stop since Sicario. Instead, Italian film and tv director Stefano Sollima (Gommorah and Subburba) was appointed with the understanding that he would be making a stand alone anthology film and not a direct sequel as such. Sadly Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario’s Oscar nominated composer passed away earlier this year and the sequel is dedicated to his memory, with colleague and fellow Icelander Hildur Guðnadóttir taking his place. Roger Deakins, who also garnered an Oscar nod for his work on Sicario, is replaced by Dariusz Wolski as Director of Photography. Gone too is Emily Blunt’s character, FBI agent Kate Macer, a much needed moral compass in the original. Both the absence of Blunt’s stellar acting and the role her character played is where Soldado falters and how the action on screen descends into what feels a lot like casual violence.
It is this lack of a moral compass and only passing nods to some semblance of justice that makes Soldado such a bitter pill to swallow. With the departure of Blunt’s character (and the old trope that FBI = good/balance and CIA = bad/chaos) there is no longer any right or wrong, or proportionate and disproportionate. This is a tale of two men given limitless resources and ordered by a ruthless Defense Secretary (Matthew Modine) to unleash hell, as long as they don’t get caught. The set pieces of kidnapping, convoy ambushes and swooping helicopters are thrilling and expertly shot, but the backdrop is bleak and depressingly cynical. The terrorist bombing as the opener (shot up-close and harrowing) is used to give the government carte blanche. This makes for uncomfortable viewing at a time when the news has been dominated by the separation of children from families at the US-Mexico border, a bellicose President and a rise in enthno-nationalism. Not that Soldado sets out to make any political point – it seems to exist in a moral vacuum – but it does sit uncomfortably in the paranoia of the current climate in the US.
Benicio Del Toro does his best to to inject some humanity into Taylor Sheridan’s script with Alejandro’s bonding with the kidnapped Isabela. This provides a little bit of respite what from is otherwise a parade of unlikeable, amoral characters. Josh Brolin’s Garver lacks some of the swagger and machiavellian charisma that made him so watchable in the first installment, instead coming across as an enthusiastic war criminal. There’s little doubt that people like this exist and are sent on these government authorised bloodbaths, which is what makes watching Sicario 2 so grim. Sheridan will likely never have come across Mitchell & Webb skit “Are we the baddies?” .
Soldado has enjoyed a better than expected opening weekend, grossing $19.1 million, comfortably surpassing its predecessor. The conclusion of the film also leaves the door wide open for another film in the Sicario canon, although Stefano Sollima has already ruled himself out of returning to direct.