Directed by Stefano Sollima
Starring: Benecio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
Rated R for strong violence, bloody images and language
2 hrs. 2 mins.
It’s frightening to think that there just may be a Matt Graver somewhere in the bowels of the White House waiting on an order to carry out an assassination plot hatched by the U.S. government. In a case of art imitating life, we get Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
It’s a follow-up to the thriller Sicario released in 2015, a fine film that received three academy award nominations. This Sicario is less focused and more driven by its brutality. It makes its point not because the film is insightful, but because it uses our worst fears of terrorists and Mexican Mafiosi to turn the U.S. government into a vigilante force in which legality exists only as a term in the dictionary.
The film opens with a terrorist attack on a grocery store in Kansas City. Coincidentally, a terrorist also blows himself up during a border raid on illegal immigrants. This leads the U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) to assemble a team of generals and high-ranking officials. Their conclusion: Mexican drug cartels are smuggling terrorists into the U.S.
Under the guise of starting a cartel war, they hire Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of CIA operatives to kidnap cartel leader Carlos Reyes’ daughter Isabel (Isabela Moner). Part of this team includes sicario (hitman in Spanish) Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro), presumably to give Reyes a reason to blame the kidnapping on other Mexicans.
The plan is to take Isabel back to Texas and stage a very public rescue. But the plan goes off the rails when Graver’s team and the Mexican federales escort her back to her father across the border. The federales open fire on Graver’s team and the daughter escapes into the Mexican desert.
You could legitimately ask the question: With an operation this hasty and this complicated, how could it not go wrong? And you would be right. This is a story meant to fail in all the obvious ways. The more failures, the more bullets. At its heart, Sicario is a questionable action film dressed up to look like a lesson in political theater.
Italian director Stefano Sollima (Gomorrah) brings a sense of style to this madness. Even with the story spinning wildly like a top, he manages to capture the grit of the Mexican landscape and the desperate plight of the illegal immigrant. His use of light and darkness, twilight and headlights is atmospheric, even stunning.
As for the rest of the political machinations, you might need to keep notes as the camera jumps from country to country and border to border. Not surprisingly, it seems that the writer, Taylor Sheridan, is doing his best to give the U.S. government a black eye, especially in the dialogue between Graver and his CIA handler, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener).
What’s skimmed over in these conversations is the amorality of all parties involved: The U.S., the CIA, the Border Patrol and Gillick, who is, after all, a brutal assassin. The irony is that he becomes the film’s father figure to Isabel. How these two extremes work is a question left unanswered.
The film’s marketing caption — “No rules this time” — seems to apply to the story itself. It won’t make much sense, but perhaps in the action one might find some entertainment? Is that what you would call this? Yes, probably, but a better storyline might have improved this film’s outlook.
It’s a stretch, to be sure, but there are some riveting moments with bullets and blood flying, and a suggestion that there will be a sequel. After all, it seems that sicarios, even the ones who are beaten and shot, can’t really be killed. Del Toro in particular is one tough hombre and not a bad father, if you don’t mind the fact that he kills people for a living.