Ballsy, ultraviolent sequel that doesn’t shy away from the harshness of its predecessor.
Soldado feels like a concoction made from bottling up the unforgettable tension and excitement of Sicario’s opening ambush, but sometimes forgetting the surface level narrative which would push it forward. Helmed by modern day master Denis Villeneuve, the first entry’s tale of corruption on the Mexican border was a surprise hit, both financially and critically, following a production many of its stars believed doomed the film. Such success naturally greenlit a sequel – but this is no cash grab. Written by the returning maestro Taylor Sheridan, Soldado continues the dark political saga with a loud, powerful bang.
When the U.S. government rules that the Mexican drug cartels are now officially considered terrorists, they enlist the assistance of dirty agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who teams up with old compadre, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).
The pleasantly surprising sequel starts off incredibly strong with a disturbingly raw assault on a supermarket. It carries with it a heavy tole (as well as a punch), but firmly plants us back in the gloomy world of the Sicario franchise. The onscreen atrocity brings about a change of tune in the government, in efforts to combat the profitable transportation of migrants, which so happen to often be terrorists, across the Mexican border. The film tells us through expositiony scenes that people are now worth more than cocaine in terms of trade. This lucrative business sadly attracts many youths, such as Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), inducted into the frightening career through his cousin.
Director Stefano Sollima, a relatively unknown talent (but a talent he very much is), switches between the meatier narrative and Miguel’s side plot, before the two inevitably come together. Until threads start to tangle, the latter isn’t as gripping as the former, with Rodriguez’s committed yet unimpressive performance struggling to carry its weight. Back alongside the dirty military, the events are much tastier. A plan is hatched to kidnap the cartel leader’s daughter, Isabel (Isabela Moner), to bait them into a trap. Moner is an utterly remarkable talent considering her age, an able performer in both character-building, conversational scenes and chaotic set-pieces. A child performer being brought in to a very adult outing can sometimes trivialise proceedings – this is a bit true of Soldado. The follow-up plays out much more like a conventional action outing, albeit with denser themes and some twists and turns. While the first had a capacity to shock with its tale of deception throughout, Soldado pedals ahead in favour of a less complicated feature. That being said, this allows the filmmakers to be pretty creative with the set-pieces (which there are aplenty). These carry the film forward at a brisk pace, speeding along like an escaping humvee.
The rip-roaring sequences are every bit as visceral and immersive as those in the first entry; claustrophobic sequences such as a 360 shot inside an ambushed vehicle, or ground level, intense assassinations, or even something as simple as the haunting command of an air strike on a computer screen. Sollima’s direction is generally fantastic and lead cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, tries to inject the same gorgeous flair that previous DP Roger Deakins did, with some very direct tributes, such as a throwback to that eternal shot of the dusk sky upon the desert. But Wolski just isn’t on the same level as Deakins (then again, who is?). This means the absence of those precious eyes which elevated Villeneuve’s effort to high art is felt, but there’s still some definite beauty to be found here.
Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are a dynamic pairing whose chemistry goes beyond words – there’s a telepathy there that ensures the two juggernauts glow in every scene. Brolin is very much on a hot streak at the moment. Infinity War‘s Thanos afforded the star some heavy-hitting monologues and a distinct shade of purple; Deadpool 2‘s Cable allowed him to exercise his potty mouth while enjoying some more comic-book bloodshed; Gravers puts him unshakeably as quite simply, a very shady guy. His motives are rational and even understandable – but he’s the man who makes the choices we literally cannot. Morally, they’re often inexcusable, but they’re often unfortunately efficient. Brolin plays this with a solid charisma, giving believable weight to his actions while also remaining a formidable presence.
Del Toro is a bit of a marmite performer – many aren’t won over by his charms, other swoon over him. There’s much to love within his calculated performance in Soldado though. Calm, collected, but definitely dangerous, Del Toro plays the government hitman with a quiet intensity that makes him absolutely magnetic on the screen.
There’s hints and touches of various other magnificent scores in Hildur Guðnadóttir’s work here – Jóhann Jóhannsson’s delicate majesty on Prisoners inspires the more reserved moments, while the atmospheric soundscapes of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are fondly remembered during the wide, precursor shots to the rather constant carnage. It’s a creeping soundtrack that complements the drama well, although just not overly original.