Tuesday, July 3, 2018


(US - 2018)

Directed by Stefano Sollima. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Catherine Keener, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Bruno Bichir, Graham Beckel, Raoul Trujillo, David Castaneda, Faysal Ahmed. (R, 122 mins)

The tough and uncompromising SICARIO opened to much acclaim in the fall of 2015, but it didn't end on a note that left anyone demanding a sequel. SICARIO director Denis Villeneuve and star Emily Blunt are out, but co-stars Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Jeffrey Donovan are back, along with writer Taylor Sheridan (HELL OR HIGH WATER, WIND RIVER, and, since he continues to pretend it doesn't exist, VILE). Italian director Stefano Sollima (the son of legendary Eurocult director Sergio Sollima, best known for THE BIG GUNDOWN and VIOLENT CITY) makes his US debut and does a solid job of adhering to the style set by Villeneuve, with a particular affinity for those overhead shots of fast-moving military caravans that were so memorable the first time around. Though Del Toro's contracted agent Alejandro is the titular sicario, or assassin, it was Blunt's rookie FBI agent who served as the core of the story and the connection to the audience as she barreled headlong into a situation far more violent and dangerous than she ever anticipated. The shift in focus to Del Toro isn't a surprise considering it began about 3/4 of the way through SICARIO, when Blunt's agent was relegated to the sideline while Villeneuve and Sheridan concentrated on Alejandro's quest for revenge against a cartel underboss who killed his family.

It takes a little while for Alejandro to show up in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (which was titled SICARIO 2: SOLDADO when the first trailer appeared), as the globetrotting intro jumps from migrants being stopped at the US/Mexico border to an ISIS suicide bombing in a Kansas City supermarket to CIA agent Matt Graver (Brolin) in Djibouti before being sent to Somalia to interrogate a pirate and terror suspect who knows the connection between the seemingly unrelated incidents. It turns out that the Mexican cartels have found a lucrative side gig in smuggling people over the US border, including Islamic terrorists. To combat this unforeseen front in the war on terror, the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) and CIA chief Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) assign Graver to a top-secret mission to start a war between the cartels and hope they all wipe each other out, of course with the stipulation that the government will deny any knowledge and Graver is on his own if the truth leaks out. Assembling his usual crew, including bespectacled right-hand man Steve Forsing (Donovan) and the elusive Alejandro, with the caveat "No rules this time" (were there rules last time?), Graver oversees the assassination of the top lawyer of a major cartel boss and orchestrates the abduction of 16-year-old Isabela Reyes (Isabala Moner), the daughter of Carlos Reyes, another top cartel honcho. This starts the war they intended as Graver and Alejandro stash the girl at a safe house in Texas, but when they try to get her back into Mexico, the entire plan goes to shit. Graver and the crew end up back in the States while Alejandro and Isabela are left on their own in Mexico, as the President, the Secretary of Defense, and Foards scramble to explain why CIA and US military were engaged in a firefight in Mexico, ordering Graver to clean up the mess, including any trace of Alejandro.

SICARIO worked fine on its own, and SOLDADO is sufficiently entertaining if completely superfluous. Brolin is fun as Graver, who often seems like what might happen if The Dude was ever in the CIA. But Del Toro is the primary focus this time, and the film wants to further humanize Alejandro, with Isabela essentially serving as the surrogate daughter to replace the one he lost under the orders of her own father. Isabella's father, seemingly an important figure, is never seen, and there's a lot of time devoted to a tenuously-connected subplot involving Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager in McAllen, TX just over the border. Impressionable Miguel has a passport and gets roped by his older cousin into working as a mule for cartel flunky Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Miguel and Alejandro have a passing encounter in a mall parking lot that will come into play much later, but when it does, it still feels forced and hackneyed. It's indicative of the indecisive nature of Sheridan's script. The political implications of the story muddled enough as it is (how exactly does the Secretary of Defense think it will emerge from this half-baked plan unscathed?), but between the Alejandro/Graver/Isabela and the Miguel storylines, SOLDADO feels like two ideas Sheridan couldn't flesh out, so he tried to cram them into one. Indeed, by the time we get to the abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, which leaves several threads dangling and the door wide open for a third installment, the realization sets in that SOLDADO plays like the two-hour premiere of a SICARIO TV series that's cleverly disguised as a feature film. A hypothetical SICARIO: THE SERIES on Netflix sounds like a better idea than the strange determination to turn the Alejandro story into a big-screen franchise.

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