Monday, July 2, 2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Alternate Title:  Once Upon a Time in Mexico
One sentence synopsis:  Alejandro Gillick and Matt Graver reconvene to start a war between two rival drug cartels by kidnapping the daughter of a cartel leader.

Things Havoc liked: The original Sicario, back in 2015, was a truly great film, as well as being my first introduction to Taylor Sheridan, a man who has gone on to dominate my best of the year lists with films such as Hell or High Water and Wind River. He wrote the original Sicario, a bleak, gritty, wonderfully-made film about the quasi-legal components of the battle against the Drug trade in the US and Mexico. Though Sheridan has become a world-class director as well as writer, he has returned to just the writing duties for this one, teaming up instead with Italian crime drama director (and former war zone news cameraman) Stefano Sollima. With pedigrees like that, you could not have gotten me into the theater fast enough.

So how's the sequel? It's good. Not great, but good, principally because so many of the original team are back for another round. Front and center is Benicio del Toro, reprising his central role as the lawyer-turned-hitman Alejandro Gillick. This is the role that brought del Toro to my good graces, and he's very good in it, dialing things back to a low burn as he takes on another job to make life difficult for the cartels that ruined his life. He's not as good, however, as the increasingly ubiquitous Josh Brolin, this time reprising the role of CIA fixer and hatchetman Matt Graver, the man who runs the circus which Gillick is a part of. Brolin is absolutely at home with this material, with a relaxed, sure approach that comes with the territory, as his character is the consummate military and wet work professional. Both actors dance through the weighty material they've given as though it's all just another day at the office, which it manifestly is. Younger actors, such as Isabella Moner and Elijah Rodriguez, play teens caught up in some aspect of the drug war and the cartels' business, the former as the conceited daughter of a cartel lord, who winds up becoming the fulcrum of events, the latter as a high-school kid from Texas who gets drawn into the web of Cartel human smugglers ferrying people into the US. All sides are covered in dirt here, as special forces and cartel assault teams comb the trackless wastes of Northern Mexico in search of their targets, and civilians are left to do the best they can in between the bombs.

I shouldn't have to tell you, then, that Taylor Sheridan's script is still as punchy as ever, with brutal action sequences alternating with the banal aspects of fighting this undeclared war on human traffickers and drug smugglers. Sheridan, the grand dean of modern westerns nowadays, turns this one into a parable-free tale of deception and bloodshed, keeping the polemics down in favor of a simple story of bad men doing bad things in a bad place. Though I had never heard of Sollima, the Director, he draws on a bountiful background in war reporting and crime drama to put this one together, and creates a film that feels effortlessly real throughout.

Things Havoc disliked: Which is all the more surprising, given that it isn't.

Sicario 1 was a superb film, precisely because the madness that was taking place was properly placed in a context that was entirely believable, with a blurry line between policing and military operations. Sicario 2 does not. It's a plot straight out of several video games I've played, in which a CIA wet work squad, at several points, engages in open warfare with Mexican cartels, police, and the state itself, all seemingly without consequences.

Look, I'm not a fool. A lot of shady shit goes down in the drug war, on all sides. This isn't about morality, or me objecting to how villainous the actions of our characters are or are not, it's about scenarios that just don't make sense. Mexico is not Somalia, not in the real world, and so armed military invasions of large portions of its territory are the sort of thing that doesn't fit with a scrupulously ripped-from-the-headlines sort of movie. A general action movie would have no trouble getting away with some of the things that occur in this film, but this is Sicario, this is the "real" war on Cartels right here, and so events like a PMC flying armed helicopters full of special forces to and fro across the border on a regular basis just don't fly.  It turns the movie from a plausible one into a violent fairy tale, at least in parts, robbing it of some of what made the original Sicario so great.

Final thoughts:   Day of the Soldado is a perfectly good film, though not the triumph that its predecessor was, a tense, gripping crime and violence-drama punctuated with just a little too much action and just a little too much suspension of disbelief to measure up to its illustrious predecessor. Still, with the year having been mostly a dud so far, there are far worse things to see in the theaters. Especially when it comes to subjects like drugs or illegal immigration, about which nobody has the slightest intention of speaking sense.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Time for Pixar to go back to the well.

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