Vantablack Ops 2.0
– There’s a nod to the torture practice of waterboarding early in ‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ (2018), as we are lead by Crocs adorned feet along dusty gravel to some military site where a foreigner (Somali) is being detained for interrogation.
It’s like a gung-ho patriotic American smoothie of bad taste, crime, drone bombing, racism and capitalism all blended with steroids to make the American Dream Retox.
The batch of water bottles ready to replicate the effect of drowning also triggered a memory of the feeling of slow suffocation that embodied it’s prequel ‘Sicario’ (2015). That was directed by Denis Villeneuve, with his senses dream team that is the godlike cinematographer Roger Deakins, plus the sonic alchemist Jóhann Jóhannsson’s (who has sadly departed since then) score could create such dread, you’d forget to breath, as you watch something incredibly beautiful, and truly horrific.
Written by Taylor Sheridan, it was a phenomenal descent into darkness where character Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent learning hand in hand with the viewer, the levels that her government are willing to go to in retribution during so called ‘Drug Wars’ with a Mexican cartel.
It’s a slow horrific creep of a film where we are exposed to the chaos and carnage, which has the same effect on the viewer as it does to Blunt’s character, we are rightly horrified, and traumatised.
Whereas that movie was our introduction to the Black Ops missions behind the bullet holed and blood soaked curtains with the protagonists involved, namely Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), ‘Sicario 2’ is a much deeper dive into the darkness, and the recognition that these Ops are pro actively creating just as many of the problems as supposedly fixing them.
Set in Mexico again, where the most profitable criminal enterprise is human trafficking across the border to the US. That seems like a pretty run of the mill set up, but not so in the hands of writer Sheridan. There is the modern cowboy lifestyle aesthetics that he regularly finds solace in, but it’s sprinkled with some Taylor spice that turns the Scoville burn levels up significantly with the fact that suicide bombers are apparently getting into the US via Mexico and wreaking havoc, by actually blowing up society.
This isn’t helping the job security of the Secretary of Defense James Ridley (Matthew Modine), who decides that whatever needs to be done to stop these events has a big green GO!, so he makes sure The Boys are back in Killtown, not only to paint it red, but burn it and EVERYTHING else to the ground.
A ‘plan’ is conceived that involves the kidnapping of a cartel leader’s young daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to give the impression that it was orchestrated by an opposing gang and incite a civil war. What could possibly go wrong?
Initially the movie starts out with sequences that are somewhat reminiscent of elements of the original, which though dynamic very quickly expose what is lacking in this that it doesn’t achieve the supreme beautiful darkness or technical levels. The settings are well chosen, but the direction (Stefano Sollima), cinematography (Dariusz Wolski) and score (Hildur Guðnadóttir) just aren’t on the same level, but to be honest that is probably an impossible task in itself. Knowingly or not this chapter ups the ante on visceral to compensate, and indeed it’s an intensely brutal experience, just not with the finesse.
Not to be over critical either, there are some truly stunning set pieces and development of character (well with Del Toro at least) that was just hinted at previously. As soon as the movie moves away from elements of the first one, it really hits the ground running. There’s a zero flourish rawness that works extremely well, again the first film being an day trip expedition into the bleak, this is a full blown immersion tank, at night, no Moon, and you’ve a black hood on with gun pointed at your head.
As much as there are a number of FUCK YEAH moments, it’s the smaller character details that are the true success. The kidnapped daughter isn’t your average young school girl and we’re introduced to her in a very refreshing manner, and she’s a bit of an arsehole. Played by Moner, she’s absolutely fantastic and it had me thinking of Natalie Portman in ‘Leon’ (1994), and though not to the same levels of Blunt, she is a stunning plus.
Her horrific adventure is lead by Del Toro (El Terminatoro), who also turns in a brilliant performance again, with nuance, understanding and weirdly enough morales. To the greater extent it’s rightly his movie, but Moner’s character holds her own when sharing scenes.
The movie also expands into the on the ground workings of the cartel grunts, their recruitment and the things they have to do to achieve respect, success and survival. Essentially everyone is being exploited to some extent, but no one has options, this is an extremely harsh world.
Again, when it’s throws away the road map of the original, it becomes a brilliantly intense and vicious experience that goes from strength to strength. However, one of the wonderful aspects of ‘Sicario’ was it was original and most definitely had a sense of a one off, which made it all the more brutal being that nothing, nor no one was safe. It made a lot of money though, so now like the cartel, money dictates and they want more. While it all belts along at a great pace and rationale, the bean counters have chipped in and whacked it with the greed hammer, causing a huge crack in it’s credibility.
Without giving spoilers, I really wasn’t happy with the final set up, and it actually comes across that no one else involved was happy with it either.
It’s all still a great intense cinematic experience that really holds it’s own, and should be judged on it’s own merits despite it being the slightly diluted just black version of a Vantablack (the darkest material in existence) masterpiece.
8/10 ‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ is out now in the UK.