‘Ambitious sequel aims high but doesn’t nail the hit’
Taylor Sheridan may not hold the reputation of some of the biggest working names in cinema today, but in a relatively short span of time the Texas native has delivered a string of genre works received to great acclaim.
Starting out in front of the camera with recurring roles on Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy, his big break came in 2015 with Sicario, followed by Hell of High Water and Wind River in subsequent years. Penning all three screenplays, earning an Academy Award nomination for Hell or High Water and directing Wind River, the recently premiered Paramount series Yellowstone additionally boasts Sheridan’s talents as chief creative force behind the modern-day Western. Garnering a reputation for scripts comprising of morally ambiguous men, expansive natural settings and a depiction of violence devoid of vicarious thrills, his latest big screen outing Sicario: Day of the Soldado is in keeping with the tone of earlier works but to less effect.
Directed by Italian Stefana Sollima (Suburra) in his English-language debut, the film picks up years after the events of the original with CIA specialist Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men) continuing the war against Mexican drug cartels under the watch of US government officials Catherine Keener (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket). Tasked with starting conflict among feuding cartels as a means of destabilisation, the services of Alejandro (Benecio del Toro, The Pledge) are enlisted once again as a means of exacting revenge against those who killed his family.
After successfully kidnapping Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moren, Transformers: The Last Knight), the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent drug lord, the moments of respite are short lived as Alejandro and Matt are separated following an altercation involving the Mexican federal police. With Alejandro opting to smuggle Isabela across the border as part of an illegal ring, a government mandate tasks Matt with cleaning up the mess left in Mexico with no one to be left unaccounted for.
Whereas the Denis Villeneuve original succeeded in conveying an ‘in the dark’ sensation experienced by Emily Blunt’s idealistic FBI agent amid a host of questionable moral and legal choices taken in the war on drugs, Soldado’s lofty ambitions lack awareness of the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric espoused against Mexicans in the years that have past since 2015.
While the film never outright declares an ideological position on either side, the first act makes for uneasy viewing as undocumented immigrants are depicted committing acts of terrorism on US soil. With references to Islam made in passing, the intention of showing genuine fears of terrorism taking place in the ‘land of the free’ comes off as misguided given the conflation of Mexicans to violent criminals made by Donald Trump on a consistent basis.
By depicting people who have been demonised to such an extreme degree that recent policy has seen children held in cages whilst separated from their parents, the world of Soldado is in opposition to reality and as such cannot be divorced from the real world implications of the Trump presidency (immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes, while they overwhelmingly make positive contributions to society).
In moving past the problematic opening, the middle act is by far the film’s best with strong tension built up and moments of earnest connection between Alejandro and Isabela permeating through acts of violent bloodshed. There is a good film within Soldado and for more than half of the 122-minute running time Sheridan’s screenplay produces much of what audiences have resonated with over the years.
While the problems of the first act are rooted in real world context, the ending is similarly flawed but for entirely different reasons. Whether by a failure of nerve or a studio backed desire to produce further sequels, the way in which plot lines are tied up conveniently or unresolved goes against the film’s best interests. Where Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River departed on endings that could be expanded upon naturally, the manner in which Soldado concludes comes across as tacked on unnecessarily, dampening an otherwise effective crime thriller.
Reprising his brilliant performance as the titular assassin, Benecio del Toro’s relationship alongside teenager Isabela Moner in her first serious dramatic role is worth admission alone with the emotional core adding depth to the familiar genre trappings. Having starred in two of 2018’s biggest comic book hits Josh Brolin transitions effectively to the subject material, while supporting turns from Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) are fine but hardly scene stealing. On a technical level cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Matthew Newman go about their work with skill, while Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir walks a fines line between enhancing the overall atmosphere and overbearing in self-importance towards the end by evoking similarities to recently departed composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score,
Sicario: Day of the Soldado may be the least of Taylor Sheridan’s run of hit screenplays, but while some grievances weigh down a sequel that has more ambition than most, there is still enough to admire about the film at its best.