The Borderland Brutality of Sicario: Day of the Soldado
By Anthony Lane
July 9 & 16 Issue
Bad timing, or a lucky break? Either way, the release of “Sicario 2: Soldado” verges on the uncanny. Stefano Sollima’s film is set in various places, including Djibouti and the Gulf of Somalia, but the main dramatic arena is the border between Mexico and the United States, across which the characters make zealous efforts either to transport other humans or, alternatively, to stop them in their tracks. The minds of many viewers will immediately drift away from the fictional narrative and toward the actual events of recent weeks, along the same boundary, where children have been sundered from their immigrant parents and housed in detention centers. On June 23rd, news footage showed protesters blocking a bus as it left one of the centers, in McAllen, Texas, and chanting, “Set the children free.” And what particular spot do we visit, early in the film? McAllen.
There, we meet a teen-ager, Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), whose house is next to a border fence, on the American side, and who is recruited into the illegal-immigrant trade. Miguel, with his air of shyness and cunning, is a minor presence in the story, and yet without him it would not twist and turn as it does. The script is by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the original “Sicario” (2015), and though both tales abound in explosions, he likes nothing better than to light the fuse of a subplot and have it slowly burn. Some of his protagonists from the first film return for duty here: Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a federal agent whose sacred calling is to do the dirty work of the U.S. government and to clean up afterward; his sidekick, Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), who commits himself to chaos without removing his spectacles, like a homicidal librarian; and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), whose last name is never revealed. Everything about him feels classified, to be honest, down to his trigger finger.
One thing we do know is that a drug cartel, led by a guy named Reyes, murdered Alejandro’s family. Hence the sadness engraved on del Toro’s features, which are scarcely jovial at the best of times. Now he and Graver, on the say-so of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine), spearhead a covert scheme to kidnap Reyes’s twelve-year-old daughter, Isabel (Isabela Moner), and spirit her into America. The abduction will be pinned on a rival cartel, resulting in an internecine war: bring on the worst of times. That’s the plan, anyway, and what’s so grim is not just the laughable certainty that it will go wrong but the sourness of the political cynicism behind it. Where once we might have hoped for a constructive policy, we find only meddling and mayhem. As Graver says to Alejandro, “No rules this time. I’m turning you loose.”
The trouble is that the director cannot resist the mayhem. Far more than Denis Villeneuve, who directed the first “Sicario,” Sollima is enraptured by the lock-and-load mentality of his heroes. Graver, asked why he was allowed to speed straight through a checkpoint, replies, “Because I’m special,” and Forsing hymns the perfection of the day: “Blue skies. Large-calibre weapons.” Some of the armed encounters are suitably spectacular, but, when two dozen Mexican police officers, up against Graver and his team, die in a shoot-out on a dusty road, the movie shrugs them off as collateral damage—awkward for Graver’s superior (Catherine Keener), perhaps, but of no moral consequence whatever. The imposing gloom of the earlier movie is replaced by a breezier attitude: if the world around you, or the nation next to you, seems just too hot and too complex to handle, try throwing a load of military muscle at the problem, and stand back. If it winds up trapped in even deeper complication, tough.
And yet, despite that, “Sicario 2: Soldado” has got something. To be precise, it has an absorbing double act between Benicio del Toro and Isabela Moner, as Alejandro and the captive Isabel—the child of the man, remember, who was involved in the death of Alejandro’s loved ones. So how should he treat her in return? Wreak revenge, or risk a little mercy? They are thrown together in the scrubland near the border, and their relationship is wary and unhurried, with a faint echo of John Wayne and Natalie Wood, as a Confederate veteran and his long-lost niece, in “The Searchers” (1956). Moner is terrific, and her character’s fortunes can be read in her eyes—blazing to begin with, as she scraps with another girl in a schoolyard, but dark and blank by the end, their youthful fire doused by the violence that she has seen. Although Sollima’s film is unbothered, for the most part, by the plight of refugees, it gets one thing dismayingly right: our most significant witness, on the fault line where Mexico and America grate against each other, is a child.
‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado,’ brilliant and a bit nuts, lives up to original
By Richard Roeper