Between them, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins created a mesmerising sense of foreboding in the 2015 thriller, Sicario. Written by Taylor Sheridan, it presented a nightmarish landscape of violence on the border between the US and Mexico. There, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer provided the one flicker of decency in a drug war where humanity seemed in short supply.
Emily Blunt isn’t in Sicario 2: Soldado, which leaves us in far chillier company: US government operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his murderous assassin sidekick, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The pair were a secretive, almost unknowable presence in the first movie, but Soldado manages to deepen our understanding of them – even if their actions are likely to make us recoil in horror.
With director Stefano Sollima and photographer Dariusz Wolski taking the helm, Sicario 2 has a markedly different pace and texture than the first: without Villeneuve’s feel for mood, Soldado feels less ethereal and more like a conventional crime thriller. All the same, Sollima – the Italian director of Suburra and several episodes of the Gomorrah TV series – has his own gritty way of building suspense.
The vital common factor between this film and the first is screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who weaves another story about a seemingly endless cycle of bloodshed on the US border. This time, Sheridan turns his attention to human trafficking, with his multi-strand narrative straddling both sides of his subject.
Early on, we meet Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) a teenager who’s being groomed by a Mexican crime boss into the migrant smuggling business: destitute families are relieved of a few hundred dollars, driven to the border by bus, then marched under cover of night across the line and onto American soil – assuming the Border Patrol cops don’t catch them first.
When a terrorist incident in Kansas City sparks a national outcry, and it’s suspected that the culprits entered the country via the US-Mexican border, the CIA formulates a murderous response: engineer a war between the cartels. To this end, Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro (del Toro) assemble a team of soldiers, kidnap the daughter of a powerful drug boss, then make the whole thing look like the crime of a rival cartel.
It’s the kind of crazy plan that doesn’t even sound like a good idea on paper, but thanks to the simmering intensity of the performances and Sollima’s direction when the whole gambit starts to fall apart, the movie still retains at least a thin patina of believability.
In essence, what Sheridan’s written is a modern, Tex-Mex western, not unlike Logan but without the superhero trappings: del Toro’s the weary, regret-filled gunslinger, capable of horrendous violence but also possessing a shred of morality that we never saw in Sicario. Here, the abducted daughter, Isabela (a very good Isabela Mona) provides him with a rare attack of conscience: even Alejandro realises that using a child as a pawn in a power struggle isn’t what you’d call a righteous thing to do.
As Sheridan’s plot contrives to move Soldado‘s characters across physical and moral boundaries, the resulting coincidences and shifts of allegiance can sometimes feel jarring. But what Soldado does extremely well is move the audience’s perspective ever closer to the ground: the opening shots swoop in with Border Control helicopters, and the migrants scattering in the scrub look tiny and easy to ignore. By the second half, we’ve moved away from the expensive helicopters and armoured vehicles run by the US military, and get a glimpse of what it’s like to be one of those people on the ground, willing to risk their lives to cross the border: exhausted, terrified, dazzled by searchlights.
Like its predecessor, Sicario 2 isn’t a subtle movie, but it’s certainly an absorbing one. Sollima captures the texture of his dusty, sun-parched locations, and his action set-pieces are efficient and bloodcurdling. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who takes over from the late, sorely missed Jóhann Jóhannsson, provides an unsettling sonic backdrop to Soldado‘s already bleak saga.
Rating: Four stars out of five.
Sicario 2: Soldado is out in UK cinemas on the 29th June.