The ending of 2015’s taut, stressful Sicario did not make a clear play for sequels. Operations were completed, lines were crossed and the US’s border policy was thoroughly problematised. Yet in 2018, with that policy once again forcefully disputed, Sicario 2: Soldado slinks into play, offering another look at just how grim things can get on the Texan threshold.
Gone is Emily Blunt’s disbelieving Kate Mercer, the first film’s emotional anchor and audience-surrogate. Instead, the two masculine figureheads of its lawless death squads take centre stage – Josh Brolin’s newly and briefly bearded fixer Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s quiet assassin, Alejandro. Brolin, who quite suddenly is in seemingly every major film of the year, is on easy territory, and ambles his way through, while Del Toro’s performance is characteristically one of more interesting choices and left-field deliveries.
Alejandro is brought in by a craven administration to sow chaos among the Mexican drug cartels after an early sequence of horrifying suicide bombings are shown to have been facilitated by their people-smuggling operations. These scenes, in their pointedness, are accidentally less nauseating than Sicario’s early tasters of mutilation and macabre subterfuge. Full-frontal self-destruction is hard to forget, but the film seems to think we will agree with Graver that this surely justifies any and all responses. We may not, of course, and Sicario 2’s use of graphic violence feels, like much of the film more widely, subtly and intangibly more stupid than its predecessor.
Graver and Alejandro’s central mission is the kidnap and release of a cartel leader’s teenage daughter, played with initial spunk by Isabela Moner. This objective, somewhat obviously, goes awry and leads her to endure an incomprehensible ordeal that dulls her fire into unmistakeable trauma. The motif of destroyed innocence is one that returning writer Taylor Sheridan seems eager to explore, given Emily Blunt’s journey in the first film, but it is here neglected. Instead we simply feel a nagging sense that someone should really be thinking of Isabel’s future psychiatric needs at some point.
The meat of Sicario 2 is its action, however, not its attempted emotional resonance (though a sign-language interlude does warm some remote cockles). It hangs on a series of sequences, from night time ambushes to rural road-block chaos and helicopter interception missions, and each is impressively staged. Meaty crashes, abrupt gunfire and ratcheting tension crackle in quick-release moments, leaving viewers drained and relieved.
The imagery these set-pieces are paired with is variable but often memorable; the opening shots of a night-time raid are so monochrome as to look computer-generated, eventually congealing satisfyingly into a landscape. Later swoops over expansive flat terrain and long-distance zooms on pin-prick vehicles are similarly compelling. Yet there are also car-rides in supposedly Washington with CGI backdrops that beggar belief, and occasionally shonky explosions when authenticity is most needed. The impression is built that director Stefano Sollima asked for slightly more than he was able to get.
Sicario ended with no hint of sequels; Sicario 2 closes with a canon-stretching twist that makes its intentions on that front only too clear. It is an odd moment in a film of mixed success. Its toxically masculine muscle is defensive and twitchy, but the loss of perceptive, rational self-criticism robs the film of its prequel’s balance.