I chose the publicity still above because the image gives a good impression of the look to the follow-up of the superb Sicario of 2015. The cold evening light on a day’s desert heat silhouettes the dusty figure of a hired assassin, a man with a grudge to express, employed by the US government to fight its drug war using his commission as a cathartic exercise in revenge for the killing of his family.
There’s a relentless fascistic bleakness to Sicario: Day of the Soldado shot by a different director from the first one, Denis Villeneuve. Following three story strands it reads like a documentary. Soldado does what the writer intends, we get the message: the US government uses every dirty trick in the book to achieve its ends. We are living in an age of moral decay. Ethics and honour are jokes.
This Sicario may appear complex in plot and inter-relations only because that’s what the US drug war is like. Let’s be honest, the war against drugs is complex because people on both sides get rich out of it. It isn’t only ruthless Mexican cartels making millions. US officials and politicians have dirty hands too. There are forces that won’t ever allow the legalisation of drugs because they will lose their main income.
Considering the events of recent times when a US President sees children torn from their parent’s arms and held in cages and calls it an immigration policy, this film is spot on accurate about the American disease – making America crap again! The world’s worst terrorist nation shows how its done, how to trap desperate migrant families, how Hitler and his henchmen were so terribly inefficient.
Italian Stefano Sollima (Gomorrah) steps in to direct this latest screenplay by Taylor Sheridan author of the first, whose neo-westerns Hell or High Water I judged best film of its year, and Wind River made him the genre’s outstanding writer of political thrillers.
Missing from this film is Emily Blunt’s character, her role created to be the reluctant witness to the illegal carnage. Personally, I don’t miss her girning presence. We have the cockiness of James Brolin’s clandestine official Matt Graver, and the cold, deathly stare of the magnificent Benicio del Toro reprising his Alejandro Gillick avenger. Together they look and act like bounty hunters in a Peckinpah western but with machine guns and Ray-Ban shades. Their roles fit them like a hand grenade.
There are moments the narrative takes on an uncanny resemblance to Trumpland formerly known as the USA, and there are moments it seems as if the writer’s political nous is overtaken by America’s belligerence as expressed by its current incumbent of the Whitehouse. We’re given a lesson in official terrorism. It differs from the usual sort in that it is never reported as instigated by our side. The existential ‘enemy’ is always the group outside the state wanting in, or already in and planning death by suicide bomb.
The story this time has all the hallmarks of actuality, a real event transposed to drama. Graver (Brolin) hires Gillick (del Toro) to carryout Graver’s proposal to kidnap a drug cartel’s daughter, make it look like the work of another cartel, and then release her in the full glare of publicity as if rescued by the good guys, the US cavalry.
The intention is to set the two cartels at each other’s throat, sit back, and watch the body count mount up saving officialdom a lot of money and pain. Mount up its does, but most of the killing is done by Americano Soldado.
“Why not eliminate the drug boss?” asks one government official. “Shooting the king doen’t start a war. It ends a war”, answers Graver. Whipping up tribal conflict is not a new insurgency device, (see history of Scotland faced by British imperialism) only now accompanied by super-brutality and the death of innocents categorised as collateral damage in the cause of keeping the state safe.
There is a memorable scene easily missed that pretty well sums up the scenario of a government prepared to switch sides in an instant. Gillick removes his terrorist jacket to replace it with a ‘US Official’ jacket in one deft move, showing how easily and scarily our side can slip from bad guy to good guy (and back again) in the blink of an eye.
Those operations are always officially sanctioned. Always. The politician or agency head ensures his fingerprints are not on the paperwork, the government figure here represented by Mathew Modine as James Riley, US Secretary of Defence. As with all governments involved in dirty work there’s something written on paper somewhere that points to the culprit. Often it lies in the e-mails the culprits try to delete. Cleaning up is a waste of time. A clean-as-a-whistle record is sullied when criminality happens on your watch. Claiming your back was turned, or you trusted your lieutenants, or you were obeying orders is no defence.
Day of the Soldado has well-choreographed Hummer chases, brutal executions, and blood spattered walls and car windows. The humblest of characters gets a backstory. That’s excellent writing, a writer unafraid to take the time to round character and not leave it as an ‘extra’.
Also noteworthy is the excellent murky and moody photography by Dariusz Wolski, though for continuity I’d have preferred to see Roger Deakins back behind the lens. Music is from Hildur Guðnadóttira a composer new to me and this genre who makes a decent pastiche of the original growling score by the late Johann Johansson complete with menacing Apache drum beat.
Having penned this review I checked some right-wing newspapers in the USA to see how they regard an attack on US military integrity. To a hack they deride the film as implausible or a failure dramatically. Admittedly it doesn’t have the freshness of the original, with the exception of the second Godfather saga no film series does, but it still has a strong piece of work with lot to say about today’s incursions into foreign territory justified on the grounds of stopping the drug trade or defeating existential terrorism.
Playing the young girl, Isabel Reyes holds her own against the craggy confidence of the stars, and as you’d expect del Toro is the one you can’t keep your eyes off. His enigmatic acting technique has a surprise move when you least expect it. His pauses as masterly. You hold your breath, is he going to kill that guy or crack an evil smile?
As before, there are no heroes, blood hits the walls, cynicism tarnishes everything, and reasons for decisions are ambiguous lost in a haze of self-righteous piety. The cloudy, suffocating darkness is a kind of symbolism of the dense fabric woven by corrupt administrations to hide truth. I liked the Shakespearean ending. The film’s coda is a series of intense confrontations rather than cliché chases, shoot outs and explosions.
I entered the cinema hoping this was the last of the Sicario saga only to discover it’s a trilogy. But a wonderful screenplay and the sheer brooding presence of Del Toro have me impatience for the final drama.
This one begins with a brief Somalia pirate subplot presumably to show how far the US military strays from legality as well as connect the plot to people smuggling in Mexico. It doesn’t add much to the story. Later Taylor introduces an element of sentimentality between the kidnapped daughter and Alejandro that lightens the tension. For those two reasons it misses a five star rating and gets a four star laurel.
Sheridan modernises the drug-war thriller to match the violence of today’s cartels and official reprisals. We glimpse the power of US military might. We’re a long way away from Orson Wells and his great film noir Touch of Evil – probably the best noir I’ve seen – also set on the Mexican border in which a corrupt cop does the killing.
Soldado is another winner from the febrile conscience of Sheridan Taylor. I responded to the films political outlook in most respects, especially the line about “border towns always being trouble”. Aye, don’t I know it. I live in Scotland.
- STAR RATING: Four stars
- Cast: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
- Director: Stefano Sollima
- Writer: Taylor Sheridan
- Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
- Composer: Hildur Guðnadóttir
- Duration: 2 hours
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?