Sicario was perhaps one of the best films of 2015 – receiving critical and public praise and a slew of Oscar nominations. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has since continued his successful career in Hollywood with crime fillers like Hell or High Water and Wind River. Based on these successes, it’s obvious that Sicario was as much his baby as it was director Denis Villeneuve’s. Sheridan has returned to this world with a follow up, helmed by a different director and whilst this film tries to do some interesting things in its universe, it is a case of diminishing returns.
The investigation of several suicide bombings in the US uncovers connections to the human trafficking of immigrants across the US/Mexican Border. The US government decides to hire Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to deal with the situation by turning the Mexican cartels against each other in a bloody civil war. He recruits Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) to help him, which leads to them kidnapping Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), daughter of cartel leader Carlos Reyes.
The greatest strength of Sheridan’s script is its focus on morality, as the story of this film essentially has no clear good guys. Everyone is morally grey, even Isabella is introduced beating up another classmate in her school and flaunting her power to the Principal. Whilst it makes many scenes uncomfortable and disturbing, a mainstream thriller should be commended for going in these directions rather than being a by-the-numbers good vs evil story. This leads to a lot of topical themes regarding both terrorism and immigration and a major story theme of children being dehumanized by war, all of which is conveyed with nuance. The plot goes in a lot of interesting and unpredictable directions and there is some appeal in seeing the behind the scenes planning that we did not see in Sicario. Sheridan proves that he is still a master at dialogue, as there are a lot of great exchanges that make what could be boring scenes into ones that are engaging and entertaining.
However, there is one big issue with the script: the third act. It starts with a reveal that undermines a disturbing scene at the beginning and makes it feel unnecessary. This then leads into a confusing and underwritten character and story conflict that, whilst initially tense, becomes drawn out and ends up relying on a massive coincidence. Then, there is a reveal that strains credibility and becomes more ridiculous as it progresses. Finally, the ending leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It is a sequel hook that left me feeling perplexed and wondering if a climax was missing.
There are other issues with the story and characters, for example how the main relationship between Alejandro and Isabel is underdeveloped. They share some good scenes and there is one great moment that humanises Alejandro, but it is left incredibly vague whether they grow attached to each other or not. Isabel herself also spends too much of the film as a pawn rather than a proactive character, which is a shame because Isabela Moner is very good in this role. There is also a lack of a strong main character, because as great as Del Toro and Brolin are, they work better as supporting characters than leads. Their characters get put in some difficult positions, but I found it hard to care about their plights, especially compared to Kate in Sicario. She was a great audience surrogate and the only morally righteous character, both of which are notably absent from this sequel.
The technical aspects are very good, proving my worries over Villeneuve’s absence unfounded. Stefano Sollima directs the action and drama properly, as well as making every scene drip with suspense. As for the cinematography, whilst Dariusz Wolski is no Roger Deakins, he captures the grit and style of the first film very well. There are a lot of great looking shots and stylish moments that are worth viewing on a big screen. Despite Johann Johannsson not returning as composer before his untimely death, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music adds a lot of tension. She even uses similar themes to the first film’s soundtrack, as the reprisal of “The Beast” giving the scene that it plays over a lot of power. The only technical problem is the fast editing and feel of scenes colliding into one another in the first act, but this becomes less of an issue later.
Overall, Sicario 2: Soldado is admittedly a downgrade from the first film. It has an underdeveloped script; the third act fizzles out and it often strains credibility. But it is well directed, has a lot of great moments, is impressively dark, contains interesting themes and is overall worth watching. I personally do not need a follow up, but I do want this film’s ending to have a resolution.