Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Is an Empty Cash Grab

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a sequel no one asked or cared for. It is also a lazy, ugly, dull, and stupid addition to the much-beloved original. I haven’t seen the first Sicario but I have seen enough and read enough about it to know instinctively it was not a movie begging for more to be said. But it’s 2018, so here we are.

The original Sicario was directed Denis Villeneuve, shot by Roger Deakins, scored by Johann Johannsson, and written by Taylor Sheridan. Sicario 2 was written by Taylor Sheridan. Sitting in the dark theater watching the opening credits, a feeling of dread came over me. Sicario 2 begins with a shot of a desert vista with migrants struggling under the cover of darkness to cross the border, and the words “U.S./Mexican Border” appear at the left-hand corner of the screen.

Stefano Sollima has directed a movie that looks like, from what I can tell, the original Sicario. The similarities end there. Visuals in movies are more than just looking pretty or cool. Lens choices, shot length, composition, sound design, lighting, color correction, and so much more goes into it. Sollima appears to only be interested in what’s right in front of our eyes. Even saying that is generous, I feel.

Watching Sicario 2 I began to wonder if maybe Taylor Sheridan’s script wasn’t at fault. But watching Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver as he talks with the Secretary of Defense played by the great Matthew Modine, and listening to the stilted rehashed dialogue heard countless times in movies like Sicario 2, I started to rethink my position. Believe it or not, the plot of Sicario 2 is rather simple.

Graver is asked by the United States Government to start a war between the Mexican drug cartels. It seems the government has labeled the drug cartels as terrorist organizations. Graver and the Secretary do some machismo grandstanding while sitting down. The scene is supposed to be terse and subtle. At least, it is intended to be.

Sollima has the cameraman, Dariusz Wolski, place the camera between the characters talking and shoot the scene from a slightly low angle at an angle. I’m guessing he wanted us to feel as if we were eavesdropping or feel some kind of tension. Neither happens. The result is people talking and we’re left trying to figure out if now would be a good bathroom break.

The great Billy Wilder once said a good director should know how to read. He explained what he meant was the ability to look at the script and understand how best to shoot it. In other words, reading a script and understanding what the writer was going for, the tone he is striving at, and how best to frame it.

For example, Sheridan’s script has a scene early on where terrorists enter a big box store. Possibly he named the store, possibly he didn’t. Either way, you build a set. Maybe you can’t think of what to call it. Or maybe you can’t get the company to sign on to allow you to use their name. You improvise the best you can. However, you do not put the fake name, which sounds like a fake name, in plain view of the camera, in multiple areas so we focus on that instead of the suicide bombers. I’m almost positive Sheridan did not write, “The store is called Massive-Mart.”

So, Graver assembles a crack team of agents whose names we never learn outside of Forsing, played by Jeffrey Donovan. Donovan is a reliable chiseled jaw who has a wonderful deadpan style that is almost always comically misused. It serves him well here as the gruff, bespectacled, straight-shooting second in command. It may suit him but it ultimately does him no good because Sollima and Sheridan give him nothing to do, say, or feel.

By the time Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro shows up, I began to realize Sheridan’s script was also at fault. This does not excuse, however, Sollima’s inept pacing or misguided decision to wash the color out of the film. Del Toro is far and away one of the most charismatic actors working today. His mere presence on screen often times sums up his character’s motivations and beliefs. They usually involve the words tortured, lonely, sweaty, and morose.

The moments of Sicario 2 that do work are the ones between Brolin and Del Toro. Brolin has the market cornered in terms of intense, brooding masculinity. The two men, when on screen together, seem locked in some great soulful duel of performative masculinity. Then they start talking and it all fades away to static.

Graver and Alejandro’s plan to start the cartels fighting is the same plan that is always hatched in movies like these. These plans also always go awry. Kidnap the offspring of the head of the biggest cartel, frame it on a rival cartel. They will kidnap the girl and then return her. Once the girl is returned we can inform the cartel who took her. The big surprise is how shocked everyone in the movie is that it didn’t work. It’s a bit like Wile E. Coyote being stunned that the Roadrunner somehow eluded him yet again.

A subplot runs parallel to Brolin and Del Toro’s. It is the part of Sicario 2 that is, of course, the most interesting. So logically they must keep from going back to it as much as possible. Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is a young boy from a good family on the U.S. side of the border. His cousin recruits him to be one of the men who leads the migrants across the border. He’s young, he has a passport, and he’s hungry. Although why having a passport for both Mexico and the US is helpful when helping migrants cross the border is never explained.

Regardless, Rodriguez’s Miguel is a scared kid. He struggles to make the right decisions all the while making the wrong ones. We watch him go from an upstanding bright boy with a promising future to slowly cementing his place within the local gang. The scenes lend a sense of humanity lacking in the rest of the film. Like the rest of Sicario 2, Miguel’s character arc is handled cheaply and lazily but Rodriguez finds the grace notes within the off-tune piece. Rodriguez’s performance may be good but his motivations are murky at best.

Of course, the daughter Isabella Reyes as played by Isabela Moner will gradually wear down these gruff and stoic men. She will cease to be merely a pawn and become a human being whose destiny has value, although begrudgingly. Moner excels in this role. She is given so little to do besides scream, cry, and shiver, it’s a wonder she found time for a performance at all. As hackneyed as Sheridan’s script is, Moner is able to bring out small moments of depth and confusion.

When we first meet her she and another girl at her school are locked in a fierce schoolyard brawl. The school principal lectures her but Isabel quietly stares him down. Moner exhibits a confidence mixed with vulnerability that many actors twice her age find difficult to balance.

Del Toro and Moner comprise the other best part of Sicario 2. I hope it is not lost that almost all the things about the movie that are good contain to some degree of Benicio Del Toro. A bond grows between the two as she finds out about Alejandro’s past. Moments like these hint at the movie that could have been.

Sheridan and Sollima punctuate Sicario 2 with mindless and sanitized action scenes. Bullets fly, casualties rise, and, curiously, the only people who bleed are the ones who have a big enough role to have their name in the pre-crawl credits. Again, Wolski’s camera work is shoved into pedantry as everything looks nice but the images lack any weight or meaning.

Something happens towards the end that had me laughing and rolling my eyes. A character reemerges ostensibly from the grave. The tone and pacing of the film switch from a desperate attempt for meaning to a Death Wish rip-off. The resurrected character at one point while driving has a police car with gang members pull up beside him. They begin shooting at the avenging Lazarus. Our hero merely rolls his eyes and tosses a grenade into the other car.

We get a sense, early on, that Sollima and Sheridan don’t have the convictions of their political preachings. The government and politicians are scorned for their lack of moral courage. The President is never named, merely referred to as POTUS, and no party affiliation is ever alluded to. Sicario 2 takes a stand on nothing except the unfortunate glorification of the murdering of brown bodies.

Sicario 2 may not mean to, but it still does. With the current crisis at the border, our inhumane treatment of those immigrants (especially children) attempting to cross and seek asylum, and the violence inflicted on citizens who have the misfortune to look like those who try to seek refuge, i.e. brown, Sicario 2 is an exercise in horrible taste. And this is my one attempt at giving the film the benefit of doubt. Without that benefit, Day of Soldado is a xenophobic, almost Trumpian fantasy that is gutlessly cruel and conveniently ignores our own role in the escalating drug war that’s sparked the refugee crisis to begin with.

Sicario 2 is an ugly movie inside and out. To add insult to injury, it is also unforgivably dull considering the magnitude of talent involved. Worst of all, it reeks of propaganda. Propaganda can at times be used for better angels, but in our current reality, we so often see it used to for fear-mongering. Sicario 2 reads more as an anti-immigration movie Fat Donald would greet with applause as he ramps up his continued travel bans and refugee concentration camps. Thoughtless and cruel, it is a movie only a fascist could love.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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