Friday, June 29, 2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado — The sophomore curse strikes

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

2015’s Sicario was an impeccably self-contained story that resolved in just the right manner. Under no circumstances did it require a sequel; conceptually, that would be like demanding a sequel to Casablanca.

When unforeseen events separate them from the rest of
an American mercenary force, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro)
wonders how best to protect Isabel (Isabela Moner) ...
and, indeed, if he should bother.
But Hollywood rarely is guided by art, when commerce stands ready to interfere. Sicario proved unexpectedly successfully, and actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan was on a roll, having also delivered the terrific original scripts for 2016’s Hell or High Water and last year’s Wind River.

In fairness, it perhaps could be argued that Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro, by far the most intriguing character in Sicario, deserved another look.

Sheridan gave it a good try. At its best, Sicario: Day of the Soldado has the multi-layered, parallel storylines that made 2000’s Traffic so compelling (and which, coincidentally, brought Del Toro an Academy Award). But Sheridan’s writing isn’t nearly as tight this time; a few plot details are fuzzy, and at one point simply daft.

More conspicuously, the film stumbles its way to a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion. The final 10 to 15 minutes feel as if director Stefano Sollima impulsively handed the reins to somebody far less qualified. Director Denis Villeneuve did a far superior job with the first film.

That said, Sheridan certainly cooks up a disturbing premise, which feels like a logical extension of our fear-driven world.

A pair of seemingly unrelated suicide bomber events — one during a foiled illegal immigrant crossing at the Mexico/Texas border, the other in a suburban Kansas big-box store laden with shoppers — leads U.S. intelligence agencies to an alarming conclusion: that Middle East terrorists are being ferried to Mexico by tanker ships “conveniently” ignored by Somali pirates, and then concealed among hopeful immigrants guided across the border by drug cartel traffickers.

Responding to demands from the (unseen) U.S. president that something be done to stop this, Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) summons CIA Deputy Director Cynthia Foard (Catherine Keener) and her favorite mercenary “fixer,” federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). The latter has become darker, scarier and more cynical since the case he shared with Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, in Sicario; he now believes that a desired end justifies any means.

Trafficking has become epidemic, Matt reasons, because of greed-inspired harmony between rival Mexican cartels. Provoke a war between cartels, and that accord will cease in a violent heartbeat; the resulting chaos will put an end to terrorist trafficking. (This conclusion seems unduly optimistic.) And the best way to create an internecine cartel war lies not with killing a king, but with kidnapping a prince.

Or, as it turns out, a princess.

During the intervening three years, Matt has crafted Alejandro into a perfect asset: an implacable soldier motivated solely by vengeance against Reyes, the cartel kingpin who had his family murdered. This makes Reyes’ sheltered 12-year-old daughter, Isabel (Isabela Moner), the perfect target for a kidnap scheme orchestrated by Matt, his colleague Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan) and Alejandro.

This lengthy first act is by far the film’s high point: The deceptively elaborate ploy keeps us guessing, just as it frightens and confuses the hell out of Isabel (as is intended). Along the way, we sense Alejandro’s embittered resolve weakening; he never says as much — nor does the script — but the mostly silent Del Toro’s tortured gaze suggests that when he looks at Isabel, he sees his own butchered daughter.


Fourteen-year-old Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), eldest child in an apparently average middle-class family living in McAllen, Texas, isn’t the respectful son that his mother believes. Rather than board a bus to school each day, he’s collected by older cousin Hector (David Castaneda), who has been grooming the younger boy for a life of crime.

This begins with a series of small-potatoes jobs — collect this car here, drive it there — depicted in brief segments that serve as cross-cutting interludes to the more serious events dominating the film. And we wonder: Why do we spend time with Miguel? How will he intersect with everything else? (If, indeed, he intersects at all...)

This, too, is a tantalizing aspect of Sheridan’s script.

Back in Mexico, we can’t be surprised when Matt and Alejandro’s scheme goes up in flames; after all — as our own, real-world POTUS supporters defiantly shriek — the country is filled with nothing but rapists, animals and drug dealers. But what Riley demands, in the aftermath, is just bonkers-absurd: manipulative nonsense inserted solely to drive the narrative in a particular direction, rather than because it makes any sense.

At which point, the film begins a lamentable slide toward its disappointing finale.

The joy of watching Del Toro’s fascinating performance almost compensates for such contrivance. He’s one of the supremely gifted actors who can mesmerize us simply by standing stock-still. His cold, dead-eyed stare is, well, to die for; the occasionally flickering half-smile, when Alejandro’s armor relaxes for a nanosecond, is equally hypnotic. Del Toro exudes the calm, calculating, lizard-like lethality of a ninja who expects to triumph and survive, no matter the odds (much the way Denzel Washington displays similar cool resolve, in his Equalizer series).

Brolin is equally persuasive, whether ruthlessly extracting information from a captured Somali pirate, or clinically calculating — and dismissing any concern for — collateral casualties. As we first meet Matt, his gaze is soulless; we can’t imagine him caring for anybody or anything. But he also has a low tolerance for cowardly bureaucratic incompetence, which gives him a bit of depth.

And sets him apart from Keener, who plays Foard as a coldly clinical robot. Matt may be a brutal thug, but she’s a monster.

Donovan does well as the story’s (very) slight comic relief, capably delivering mordant one-liners and caustic observations. Modine is note-perfect as an officious prick, and Rodriguez makes Miguel a creepy little snot.

Moner navigates an impressive emotional range in a role that demands a great deal. Isabel is introduced as a privileged little bitch who well deserves the “cartel whore” epithet hurled by a classmate at her private school. But she doesn’t long have the luxury of maintaining such an arrogant façade; once events kicks into gear, she slides credibly into stark terror, wary curiosity, a flicker of stubborn courage, and then heartbreaking resignation. That’s a lot of territory to cover, and Money handles it well.

Bruno Bichir is memorable as Angel, a deaf/mute character who anchors a calm interlude that reveals more of Alejandro’s back-story. The sequence is a welcome respite from the vicious brutality that fuels most of the film. Credit where due: The many violent encounters are crisply choreographed by Sollima and editor Matthew Newman, both of whom excel at keeping viewers in a state of nervous anxiety.

On the other hand, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s thoroughly detestable synth score does this film no favors, with its relentlessly pounding low chords.

Ultimately — and this is always surprising, when it occurs — Sollima’s film is less than the sum of its parts. Sheridan should have left well enough alone.

And I thoroughly hope that the final scene doesn’t augur yet another installment.

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