We’ll start with the movie, and leave the politics till a little later. Yes, there is politics here. Just as Black Panther was both a superhero film and a commentary on the past and present status of black culture, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is inevitably part of the global conversation about immigration, particularly pertaining to Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigrants at the southern US border.
But this is a movie review, and the first thing to say is that the second Sicario film is good. Very good. And that’s all the more impressive an achievement as its predecessor, 2015’s Sicario, was so damn good. I found that film a gripping, chilling and disturbing view of both the drug trade around the Texas/Mexico border, and the lengths to which the United States will go to combat it. It was superbly directed by Denis Villeneuve, had at times stunning visuals, a killer soundtrack, and excellent performances from its lead actors: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Daniel Kaluuyua. Its story, from Taylor Sheridan, was satisfyingly murky, and not always that easy to follow – which is probably what life is like on that southern border.
This new film lacks Villeneuve, and lacks Blunt, but Del Toro and Brolin are back, and probably most importantly, Sheridan returns to the screenplay. Since Sicario, Sheridan has written 2016’s Hell or High Water, and written and directed 2017’s Wind River, both crime thrillers I thought were very very good. So he’s on a roll. And new director Stefano Sollima, while not quite as stylish as Villeneuve, still ably immerses us in the dusty dry terrain of Texas and Mexico.
So to the story. It is not drugs but people who are at the centre of things here. The flow of economic migrants is a money making business for Mexico’s crime cartels, and when an terrorist incident on American soil is linked to the migrant trade, the US government again calls on CIA agent Matt Graver (Brolin) to step in. And he again brings in Alejandro, his sicario, or hitman, to stir things up. Just as in the 2015 film, the aim is to create havoc within the cartels and bring on an internecine war. The teenage daughter of a cartel leader, Isabel (Isabela Moner) is key to the plan. We also meet a young American of Mexican descent, Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), who becomes pivotal to events.
As in 2015, the story demands your attention, but this is part of the film’s appeal. We are dealing in the shadows after all, of who is in the right and who in the wrong and how far the ends justify the means. Brolin is very good, and the two aforementioned young actors are excellent, but for me Del Toro is the heart of the film. His Alejandro is softly spoken, but his eyes reveal the violence and grief that have afflicted his life. He is capable of both utter violence and soft compassion. The scene I found the most moving of the whole film involved him meeting a poor farmer and of the two men finding a common bond.
So Sicario: Day of the Soldado stacks up very well. It can’t match the impact of the first film but it is still compelling and a much better follow up than I was expecting. And that’s worth further comment, because whoever was behind marketing the film has done it a disservice. Tag lines like “some missions need a hit man,others need a soldier”, and “this time there are no rules” suggested some kind of mindless action flick. For goodness sake there were few rules evident in the first film, and it seemed like whoever wrote those lines wasn’t aware of the content they were promoting. It had me expecting the worst. Thankfully the film itself contains a heavy dose of quality. There is space here for a third chapter, and I’d be happy to see it.
As for the film’s political setting, in this Trumpian world of stoking fears of America being invaded by hordes of criminals from the south, of putting walls up, and of zero tolerance, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is right in the thick of it. I admit early on it seemed the story was verging towards saying any means are justified if the homeland is under threat. That gets turned on its head later, especially when the whole story is revealed about the incident early in the film which sets off Matt Graver’s plan. The story fleshes out various points of view in the immigration debate. We see political expediency, economic imperatives, and, most tellingly for the story, how loyalties can be tested. I guess a scene near the end will draw a big reaction from the audience, when the President of the United States is savagely vilified. Ironically, the criticism derives from him not being tough enough to follow through with a hardline policy, which is not what liberals will want to see in the story. But the remark fits in the context of the plot.
The key point is that the film deals with the complexities of what’s going on at the US/Mexico border. Simplistic measures like putting up a wall, and having children separated from their families, are just that – simplistic, and doomed to fail.