THE SCORE THAT drives this unflinching examination of State sponsored amorality is all deep, basso-profundo atonal notes. Like the memorable “ta da” that heralded the approach of Jaws, the building intensity of Sicario 2: Soldado is accompanied by a sound that seems to emerge, like the soldados, from hell…like the hoary breath of a slowly rising demon. “As dark as the swoon of sin”
Here, even in the arid deserts of Mexico where the sky is a canopy of endless blue, there really is no light. Everyone wears shades, as if the sun were an offence to these moral troglodytes. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) have been reunited to disrupt the Mexican cartels whose operations have evolved from ‘mere’ drug running into people and (they think) terrorist trafficking. After a brutal series of suicide bombs in Kansas, the war on drugs has been folded into the war on terror. And the very particular skills sets of Matt and Alejandro have been unleashed by a (typically) gung-ho, revenge boasting Secretary of State (Matthew Modine). Their mission is to start an inter-cartel war that’s free from any restraints. (“Restraints”? Matt says to an ‘enemy combatant’ he’s arrested in Africa: “We only use waterboarding where we can’t torture. But this is Africa.”) The plan is to kidnap the daughter of one kingpin (The one who killed Alejandro’s family) and frame the act on another.
Who let the dogs out!
The story focuses almost entirely on Matt, Alejandro and their team. There is no attempt to personify (or for that matter, demonise) the enemy combatants. They, and their families remain as they’re seen by the authorities: faceless people who are there to be summarily exterminated in a never ending war…machine gunned in the heart of Mexico City or drone bombed in the heart of Africa.
The point writer Taylor Sheridan (who scripted the first Sicario) and director Stefano Sollima (The TV series Gomorrah) are making is that this elite squad (of DEA and Army professionals)…these “soldados” are, like the cartel gunmen, just another group of sicarios – “hitmen”. To them, the sanctity of state lines simply do not exist: they punch into any country with impunity and indifference, and arrogantly kill whoever’s on the Kill list. This is the grubby underbelly of 007 in the real world.
Their only rule is to leave no trace…that can be traced back to the authorities. The sicarios do the dirty work. The blood is on their hands (and faces and hair and everywhere). The politicians (enabled by a clear-sighted, cynical middle person, played by Catherine Keener) keep their hands clean.
The story turns when a chink of moral, human sunlight enters, just as the casual kill list becomes its darkest. Director Sollima teases out the ironies as an unbidden moment of conscience (Alejandro the kidnapper slowly becomes a father figure, as he did in the first Sicario) potentially compromises the mission. In flight with his kidnap victim cum daughter (an expressive and convincing Isabel Moner from Transformers: The Last Knight), the taciturn Alejandro becomes almost chatty, using expressive sign language to communicate with a deaf and dumb family that helps him out. Their simple human decency and goodness moves him. It’s as though the silences of their communication carry more moral worth than all the shouted threats and political platitudes that precede it.
But to this muscular administration…this group of macho warriors, these tough men who brush away bullet wounds without feeling pain, the concept of having feelings at all, let alone a conscience is not an approved emotion and it (and Alejandro) must be eliminated.
Welcome Sicario 3.
Director Sollima does not (or chose not to) demonstrate the kinetic action reflexes of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario 1. The overall feel is darker, more brooding and with a very physical, tangible sense of place. The director’s observing eye and Dariusz Wolski’s magnificent cinematography leave you with a real feeling of having been there: there at night in the no-man’s land just north of the border, raked by slicing helicopter beams; or there in the crowded bus stops where fee-paying refugees jostle for spaces in suffocating trucks; or there in any one of the bustling border towns with their carnival mix of celebrating gringos and Mexican desperadoes.
Movies like this (classified as “action” for want of a better word) never quite make it to the Oscar nominations…just more fodder for the long hot A/C seeking cinema-goers. That’s a pity; for it address and frames one, increasingly dominant slice of modern Americana that we’d all be much happier to pretend is just a movie: the never ending symbiotic knit of venal politicians, lawless law enforcers and murderous gangsters.
There’s a President for that
SICARIO 2: SOLDADO. Dir: Stefano Sollima. With: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabel Moner, Catherine Keener. Writer: Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water). Cinematographer: Darius Wolski (All the Money in the World, Alien: Covenant, The Martian). Composer: Hildur Guonadottir (The revenant). Production Design: Kevin Kavanaugh (Nightcrawler, The Dark Knight Rises)