Director: Stefano Sollima
15 | 2h 2min | Action, Crime, Drama | 29 June 2018 (UK)
Sicario 2 is certainly an unusual sequel to behold in a year filled with Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar follow-ups. But although Taylor Sheridan is back on writing duties here to expand on the 2015 predecessor, director Denis Villeuneve, DP Roger Deakins, and the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson are all absent. Though this change of personnel does sadly seem to have affected the quality of the final product, watching Sicario 2 made me re-assess the first film in a more negative light also, and I came to realise both share some pretty fundamental flaws. Its just that the first film had enough style and memorable set-pieces to make you forgive them.
Under director Stefano Sollima’s captaincy, Sicario 2 continues the gritty, grim tone of the original, presenting us with a merciless picture of a modern day Mexico-US drug war fought entirely cynically by both the cartels and the US military and intelligence agencies. Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin also reprise their roles as Mexican assassin ‘sicario’ Alejandro Killian and CIA chief operative Matt Graver respectively, though the character of SWAT agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt) is absent this time. Thus we have an unashamedly male-led mission with a simpler ‘buddies at war’ dynamic to look forward to, with Graver and Killian instructed to disrupt the Mexican cartels over the border in response to the US government’s belief that they have begun smuggling terrorists as well as cocaine across the border into the US. People are the new currency here, regardless if they are packing bombs. The opening night sequence, where a terrorist detonates himself when confronted by border patrol at a desert crossing point, sets the stakes as well as re-affirming the ‘Sicario aesthetic’ brought over from the first film. Night vision goggles and laser sights cut the darkness, as helicopter and Humvee lights flare in the background against the dust clouds. Later, as if to confirm the US government’s (and Trump’s?) worst fears, we see a group of terrorists detonate themselves in a crowded supermarket, with Sollima refusing to spare us the sight of a mother begging the last bomber -futilely- to let her daughter go. And thus Sicario 2 puts the pedal to the metal when it comes to this portrayal of a world of sudden, violent death carried out – and later avenged- by faceless agents of war, and it doesn’t take it off.
But that is in large part the problem, both with Sicario 2 and its predecessor. Over time, it has become clear to me that grimness is what both these films are really about, at the expense of anything revelatory or moving. Basing two feature films on exploring how dark the border war can get, and how those that police the law in this porous landscape whilst wedged in between two erratic governments can become as corrupted as their opponents, is not a particularly novel concept. Even before Sicario there were plenty of TV shows and films exploring this. The first film did at least go about this with panache, with Roger Deakin’s intense, sharp cinematography and some nerve-shredding action set pieces being the key things that kept you awake in your seat. There was also sense that that first film put at least some time aside to nod towards the fallout such back-and-forth black ops missions had on the innocent people of Mexico in the border lands. Sicario 2 on the other hand manages one or two shootouts that pack a punch, but narrows everything down so tightly elsewhere that we end up with a nightmare version of Mexico that feels pretty one-note, with every agency across the border corrupted by the cartels to a paranoia-inducing degree; so much so that Killian and Graver can’t even escort a VIP across the border in an armoured convoy without their entire pre-arranged Mexican police escort and backup being revealed to be in with the cartels (which does at least lead to the film’s centrepiece shootout).
I don’t think Sicario 2’s sparse, portentous screenplay does enough to justify any claim that it is a critique of Trump’s conflation of ‘Mexican’ with ‘criminal’ and, now, ‘terrorist’. The crisp cinematography and drone-like score just ape the approach of the first film without addressing the lack of freshness that risks. Brolin and del Toro are good actors and their ambiguously-motivated and mismatched characters have potential, but continously having gritty military men stare off into the distance looking either darkly cynical or nobly wounded after committing acts of horrific state-backed violence or muttering homilies like ‘no rules this time’ (there were rules in the first film?) is not a substitute for thematic depth. Nor does it really help the film’s super-serious commitment to portraying a world drenched in cynicism and blood when a third act sympathy and salvation arc suddenly manifests, as Killian goes AWOL to protect the very girl he and Graver were ordered to kidnap, and then eventually kill, so as to spark the aforementioned cartel war and then cover the US’s involvement up. If there is one thing I’m not buying in Sicario’s world (franchise?) at this point, its a sudden return of morality and compassion.