IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 122 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A suicide bombing in a Kansas City grocery store kills fifteen people. In response, the United States government gives CIA agent Matt Graver permission to use extreme measures to combat Mexican drug cartels who are suspected of transporting Islamic terrorists across the border. Graver and the Department of Defense decide the best option is to start a war between the major cartels, and Graver recruits black operative Alejandro Gillick for the mission. Gillick kills a high-profile lawyer of a major cartel, and Graver and his team kidnap Isabela Reyes, the daughter of the kingpin of their rival….
The announcing of a sequel to Sicario less than a month after its release was an especially disappointing example of today’s sequel and remake-obsessed, idea-lacking Hollywood. Yes, the world of the film could be further explored, but it told a pretty complete story and, being one of the best films of 2015, would probably be tarnished by a sequel. Even if screenwriter Taylor Sheridan was involved, the absence of other key contributors to Sicario’s quality and effect would surely indicate a movie of a distinctly lower standard. Well, Stefano Sollima’s sequel isn’t quite as good, but against the odds it still makes a strong argument for its existence, a hard-edged thriller that’s even more uncompromising and morally murky and is almost gripping enough to make one not miss Emily Blunt. Sollima has said that he didn’t want her character to be in the sequel because she was a moral centre and he doesn’t like stories with moral centres, though in a way her role is partly replaced by another female character, and in any case this film is even more about the often drastic choices people waging war against crime have to make, so to have somebody to root for, even if it may slightly diminish the enjoyment factor, may have weakened its effect.
It begins with some Mexican immigrants crossing the border and one of them blowing himself up, then follows that up with three Islamic bombers destroying a shop, the viewer being made to dwell on a mother and child who we think may escape to safety but who sadly don’t. Well, it’s certainly provocative, and may seem to be in bad taste for some, but it’s a great way to show us that this film will take no prisoners, while I don’t have a problem with movies showing the horror of terrorism – it’s a terrible thing but I don’t think that films should shy away from it as long as they don’t glorify it, and this one thankfully doesn’t try to do that or make excuses for it. It seems that Sicario 2 has come in for some criticism for stereotyping Mexicans and Muslims, though it’s probably come from the usual whingers who will only be happy if every single villain in a movie was white and every non-white character was a really nice person. On the other hand one can question the timing of the film’s release considering the reports of “tender age” detention centres, and it’s certainly possible for a level headed person to see the initial premise – Mexican drug cartels smuggling in ISIS terrorists along with illegal immigrants – as some kind of Donald Trump fantasy, though it’s worth noting that two of the three bombers of the shop turn out to be American, and it’s not as if the American response is shown in a good light.
Right, so that’s politics mostly out of the way thank goodness. We soon rejoin Matt Graver from the first film, and he certainly seems to have got nastier even in just his first scene in which we see him interrogating a suspect. He shows him a photograph of his house, threatens to send in drones to bomb it if he doesn’t talk – and then actually goes through with it, killing some members of his family in the process, then threatening to kill some more. It’s as if Kate Macer not being around has totally let him loose. Despite Josh Brolin’s undeniable charisma I don’t think we’re asked to especially condone Graver’s actions which are excessive even if you lean towards the “ends justify the means” side of things. When it’s decided that he should stir things up somewhat, he recruits none other than Alejandro Gillick whom we last saw executing a man and his family at the end of Sicario. Benicia Del Toro is on fantastic form here, bringing a more vulnerable undercurrent to his character even when we first see him. Gillick soon shoots someone in the middle of the street and fires his gun into him a ridiculous number of times, then leads the kidnapping of poor Isabela though only to then stage a pretend rescue by the police. Then the team attempts to transport her back to Mexico, planning to leave her in territory controlled by her father’s rivals in order to further escalate the conflict, but the Mexican federal police escort for their trip back across the border opens fire on the American vehicles without warning and Isabela runs away in the chaos and Gillick goes to find her. Perhaps seeing something of his murdered daughter in Isabela, the two start to bond and maybe Gillick is becoming more human, though don’t look for easy sentimentality in this film.
Isabela, brilliantly played by Isabela Moner, is nicely introduced beating the hell out of another girl at school who insulted her. She becomes in some ways central to the proceedings, though some may find it quite upsetting that this teenage girl spends most of her time being gagged, bundled into cars and having bullets flying around her. And then we also have the story of Miguel, a Mexican-American teenager who sees crime as the way forward and who joins the gang transporting the immigrants. You know that he will eventually play a part in the main story which does have a few surprises including sadly a rather ludicrous bit in which one character appears to be shot dead only to miraculously be okay, a scene which jars with the overall gritty approach. And the final Godfather-inspired scene, despite more than ever before saying how there’s almost no difference between being a gangster and a ‘soldado’, seems to set things up for the third movie rather too obviously, though it’s a mark of how surprisingly good the film turned out to be that, despite my words at the start of this review, I was actually quite excited by the prospect.
The flitting around between the various plot elements and different viewpoints is sometimes rather uneven. Sollima, probably best known for the TV series Gomorrah which I know our Bat gave a rave review of but which I have yet to see, lacks Denis Villeneueve’s smooth touch yet seems to imitate his style a bit. There’s a riveting sequence in which Graver and co. drive across the US-Mexican border in a police motorcade, only for it to slowly dawn that something is very wrong. It’s like a speeded- up variant of that incredible entry into Mexico in Villeneuve’s film. The gun play, despite being quite short, has a real visceral immediacy, and one is left thinking that one has seen a film which is far bloodier and more graphic then it actually is. Yet it was some of the little quiet scenes that gave me a more lasting impression, such as Gillick’s encounter with a dumb man using sign language, and the young mother with baby in the back seat who drives Miguel somewhere that he needs to go. “Find me a job that pays better and I’ll do it” she says somewhat wistfully. Sheridan’s intelligent yet economical writing is well in evidence despite the odd misstep here and there.
One does miss the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins, Dariusz Wolski’s work coming off as almost ugly by comparison, while Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is clearly inspired by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s hugely effective work in the first film and does add to the tension but gets a little boring with its continual droning on and on. In general though Sicario 2 is a fairly impressive follow-up that’s genuinely hard-hitting. It doesn’t so much blur the line between good and evil as depict evil as something that, despite how appalling this sounds, may just possibly – and I emphasise the word “possibly” – be necessary in this scary world that we live in, or at least something that is incredibly hard not to sink into if you’re trying to do things like win a war. And I live in hope that the success of these films has lead to more Hollywood producers realising that there’s still a market for films aimed at adults rather than teenagers [which is what Hollywood increasingly seems to cater for] that don’t have the words “Fifty Shades” in them.