Sicario: Day of the Soldado (will be addressed as Sicario 2 from this point on) is a good movie. It is a very good action movie. But it also highlights just how masterful of an auteur Denis Villeneuve really is. And how this franchise suffers when it’s not drenched in his semen. The man is a damn genius!
I first came to know about Villeneuve when a good friend, mentor and cinephile told me to check out Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Prior to that, I’ve never even heard of the guy (Villeneuve, not Gyllenhaal). Enemy is an intriguing film and perhaps one of the most complex ones in recent memory. But what stood out to me wasn’t the intricacies of its screenplay but rather how tight and dingy and uncomfortable and curious the whole experience made me feel. I was on the edge of my seat throughout. Every scene felt interesting and important even the ones that turned out to be anything but.
I fell in love with Villeneuve, later, when he helmed Arrival, which, without a tinge of exaggeration, I can call my favourite pure sci-fi film of all time. Villeneuve’s masterful work in Arrival (a linguist chit chats with aliens for two hours) reminded me of David Fincher, who made a movie about a computer programmer feel like a Goddamn thriller. In between Arrival and Enemy, Villeneuve made Sicario, which in turn made him the sexiest director in Hollywood.
My God, Sicario is a work of art. A magnificently crafted, thrilling, and emotionally exhausting journey. Unfortunately, Villeneuve did not return to helm Sicario 2. The captain’s hat was instead given to a relatively unknown entity Stefano Sollima — a wildcard if you will — who previously made a couple of small Italian films and a bunch of TV series.
Here, Solima proves he’s a highly competent director. He seems to have studied Villeneuve’s work in Sicario and tries to recreate the magic. Keyword: tries. A competent director doesn’t always make a great one. And while Sollima does, to a certain extent, capture the visual aesthetic of Sicario (or as well as one can without the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins handling the camera), he doesn’t quite capture the feel of it.
By the end of Sicario, I felt like I had to take an ethanol bath and scrub myself with Clorox. I needed to stack religious books on my bed and use it as a pillow. And even then I carried the dirtiness and cruel stench of the film around with me for a week straight. I mean that as a sincere compliment. Sicario 2 on the other hand, is an entertaining movie.
One that starts off brilliantly. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), this time sprouting a full beard, interrogates a Somali pirate concerning some terrorist attacks in the US. ‘Interrogate’ is putting it lightly. Agent Graver threatens the pirate, not by waterboarding — “that’s what we do when we’re not allowed to torture,” he says — or any common military techniques. No, Graver threatens to kill his family via drone strike… and then actually does it. The scene is difficult to stomach, a stern reminder that just like the first movie, this isn’t a tale of heroes and villains. It isn’t painted in black and white, but various shades of grey. It’s a damn shame then, that this movie concludes in the most Hollywood-ish fashion. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
After the brilliant opening, Matt Graver returns to the United States, where the Secretary of Defense gives him his next mission: kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), daughter of big-time Mexican cartel leader, while pretending to be a rival gang. You see, the US government wants to start a war between the cartels. And so Graver recruits his buddy from the first movie, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to help him with this covert mission. The problem is, the movie doesn’t actually go anywhere. I may know what Graver’s mission is, but I don’t know what’s the movie’s mission.
The screenplay, penned by Taylor Sheridan (who has proven to be brilliant with his work on Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River) brings up terrorism, but that subplot proves to be nothing more than a Mcguffin. The war between the cartels is also seemingly tossed aside. Forget about war, we don’t even see the tension between rival cartels. But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps the point is to witness a character’s journey and how he swims through the various shitty circumstances he finds himself in. In this case, it’s Alejandro. But his character doesn’t exactly have an arc either, not one that’s explored to its fullest potential, anyway.
Arguably, when we break the first movie down to its bones, we can (I don’t, but we can) draw the same conclusions. Sicario doesn’t have a remarkable narrative, either. Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue is great (and it is in Sicario 2 as well), but the story beats are simple, especially when we reach the end of the line and look back. But Denis Villeneuve takes that and makes it special. He keeps us hanging at the edge of the cliff, even during moments where nothing remarkable happens. The story is good. The storytelling is great. Just compare the convoy scene in Sicario to that in Sicario 2. The latter is engrossing, but the former makes you chew off your fingers and clench your butthole.
I don’t wanna sound like I’m just bashing on Sicario 2. It is not a BAD movie by any stretch of the imagination. It just pales in comparison to its predecessor. But, I wasn’t bored. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt like checking my phone or hoping that the film would end. Despite not sitting on the edge of my seat, enthralled and gasping for air, I was engaged and interested all the way through.
There are two areas of the film that worked really well. The first being the action sequences. This isn’t an action-heavy film, but when the action sequences come along, they hit you hard. There’s a realism to the way these sequences are crafted that make it scary. You don’t just feel the weight of these set pieces, you feel the weight of the guns they carry too. Certain movies make you want in on the action. You wanna be among the burly tattooed men and blast the shit out of your enemies. In Sicario 2, I wanted to take cover under the car with Isabel.
Also great: the performances by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro and a very convincing showing by the young Isabela Moner. Josh Brolin, just like in the first movie, brings a certain charm and likeability to Matt Graver, a character who otherwise could’ve been very unlikeable. He’s a stone-cold asshole who doesn’t give two fu*ks about what anyone thinks and would do anything — ANYTHING — in the name of these United States of America. But we don’t hate him.
Del Toro also brings his ‘A’ game once again — has he ever not? It is his journey we mostly follow. It is him, we ultimately root for. Alejandro’s arc may not be wonderfully penned as one would hope, but Del Toro’s nuanced performance makes me buy the duality of Alejandro. Isabela Moner, who was the only bright spot in Transformers: The Last Knight shines again here, bringing the right amount of ferocity, as one would assume a daughter of a Cartel leader would possess, but also bringing childlike, civilian fears when shit really goes down.
Which brings me to the biggest issue with Sicario 2. The first time you watch Villeneuve’s Sicario, you’re clueless, just like Emily Blunt’s character. You’re unfamiliar with this world, you don’t know what the end goal is and you’re learning as it goes along. When the layers slowly peel and you begin to realise what the film is about, it’s effective. Sicario isn’t ABOUT Alejandro. It isn’t ABOUT revenge. It’s about the depths the US government is willing to plunge to get the job done, as seen through Emily Blunt’s character’s eyes. And we feel sick, just as she feels sick.
Here, you don’t know what the end goal is too. But when the third act finally plays out (and when something ridiculously Hollywood happens with Del Toro’s Alejandro) you can’t help but scream, “fu*k you! Are you kidding me?” at the screen. What did they do to Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece? Some franchises evolve — the new Planet of the Apes franchise comes to mind. Sicario has devolved. It has lost its sense of self. It now feels like a larger than life action franchise, even fitted with its very own superhero and a post-credits-esque tag right at the end. Which is fine. It just isn’t Sicario. Not the one I love.
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Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Some franchises evolve. Sicario has devolved. It now feels like a larger than life action franchise, fitted with a superhero and even a post-credits type tag right at the end. Which is fine. It just isn't Sicario.