Year:  2018

Director:  Stefano Sollima

Rated:  MA15+

Release:  June 28, 2018

Distributor: Roadshow

Running time: 122 minutes

Worth: $14.00
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Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Keener

...this latest trip down Mexico way is enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure.

The kid and the killer is a timeworn but very serviceable trope, with last year’s mutant Western Logan employing it to excellent effect. What better way to humanise a brutally efficient murder machine than forcing him to develop a relationship with an innocent? We’ve seen it in Leon: The Professional, True Grit (either vintage), Terminator 2, and countless other iterations, and now it forms the narrative and thematic core of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the awkwardly-titled follow up to 2015’s excellent narco-war drama, Sicario.

The killer is, of course, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, the attorney-turned-assassin who wreaked so much havoc last time around. The kid is Isabela (Isabela Moner), spoiled daughter to a Mexican cartel boss. The former is tasked with engineering the kidnapping of the latter at the behest of Josh Brolin’s cynical CIA agent, Matt, the idea being to frame a second cartel for the deed and kick off a bloody drug war that the US can manipulate to their own ends. Inevitably the wheels come off, Alejandro finds himself on the run with the girl in tow, and Matt is ordered by his own even-more-shady boss (Catherine Keener) to cover the whole thing up – which includes killing both Alejandro and Isabella.

Italian director Stefano Sollima (Suburra,  TV series Gomorrah) has slipped into the director’s chair vacated by Denis Villeneuve, but the authorial voice is very much screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who, with Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River, and now this under his belt, has established himself as the premier (heck, perhaps only notable) teller of modern day screen Westerns. All his concerns are present and correct: a deep and haunting sense of place, respect for the complex racial and political history of the US (and, by extension, Mexico), a laconic, masculine tone, and an appreciation for shocking, exhilarating, violence (Sheridan doubtless considers himself a Serious Writer, but he likes a good shoot out as much as the next person). Fans of his work are in for a treat.

However, Day of the Soldado is more workmanlike and more procedural than its predecessor. The film takes time to set up its pieces on the board, and to some degree neglects its King, Del Toro’s Alejandro, who is absent for the opening act, which follows Brolin’s Matt as he puts together his off-the-books operation, and somewhat sidelined for the last.

The middle act is all his, though, which makes a weird kind of sense given that Day of the Soldado is very much a “second part of the trilogy” film, leaving no doubt in the mind of the viewer that a third Sicario film is in the planning (dependent, as ever, on the box office fortunes of this episode). That results in a lack of closure here, with this section of the story more or less existing to set up a third and presumably final movement. It more or less works on a thematic level: Sheridan’s wisely cynical take on the narco war holds all up for judgement, and the fact that so many villains on either side of the conflict reach the end credits unpunished is perhaps the whole point – the ongoing internecine slaughter is the cost of doing business, with cartels profiting from tighter border control (it drives up the per-unit profit on both drugs and people), while the US intelligence community uses atrocities to justify increased powers and operational budgets. On the macro scale, nothing changes.

So it’s to the micro we must look for our pleasures, and Day of the Soldado delivers. The film’s textural detail is incredible, and the verisimilitude on display is impeccable. Veteran cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is on the camera this time out, following the revered Roger Deakins’ work on the first film – is it blasphemous to say that Wolski’s eye is more suited to the story at hand than Deakins? Certainly, his compositions are less studied and rigid, his colour choices less painterly, allowing the grit and the grime of the setting and the brutality of the action to come through with more impact.

The cast’s performances ring true across the board, and while Del Toro’s hangdog, hollow, killer of cartel bosses remains eminently watchable, it’s Brolin, continuing a great year, who gets the showier role as the CIA cowboy who ultimately has too much heart for the job he’s been given. For all that the marketing materials have primed us for a mano-a-mano scrap between Del Toro and Brolin, Taylor cannot quite bring himself to position Brolin as the villain, no matter how much it might make sense for the story to put him in that place. Is it a misstep? We’ll know in part three. For now, let’s call it an odd decision.

Young Isabela Moner really impresses as the spoiled child of privilege thrust into a violent world she soon comes to realise is one of her drug baron father’s making. Moner does a lot with a little here – her job is basically to act as witness to the bloodshed and poverty endemic in the border states, and she does so almost silently, drinking all the horror in with her impossibly big eyes. Taylor’s terse script refuses to give her a clarifying speech or even much in the way of dialogue with other characters, and so Moner has to do the heavy lifting with pure performance, communicating Isabel’s increasing trauma and loss of innocence near-silently. That she holds her own in an ensemble filled with so many heavy hitters is something.

She’s not the only kid in the picture drawn down into the chthonian drug milieu. We get a parallel narrative thread that follows a young Mexican-American teen, Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), who is recruited by his older cousin to act as a cartel runner, slowly being pulled deeper into and further up the chain until he’s forced to decide whether to commit to the life in the most horrible way imaginable. Miguel functions as a contrasting counterpoint to Isabel’s journey – he’s seduced when she is shielded, rewarded when she is punished, and so on. He’s also her exact opposite in the socio-economic sense, so whereas for her the drug world is a horrifying step into the abyss, for Miguel it offers a potential escape – heaven and hell are effectively interchangeable depending on your starting position.

Unfortunately, Miguel’s thread, like so many others, also fails to pay off. That’s a problem, although not an insurmountable one. Day of the Soldado feels like half a movie (that’s a twofer for Brolin following Avengers: Infinity War) – it’s holding back all its catharsis for a mooted third film, which means that we’re left hanging in this one. Hopefully it’ll all make sense in context a year or two down the track – until it does, this latest trip down Mexico way is enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure.


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