Sicario 2: Soldado review “admirably sustains the intrigue, atmosphere and drama”

The fight to police America's borders gets even dirtier this time, as Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro stage a kidnapping to kickstart a gang war

Sony Pictures Publicity; JH

★★★★

Back thwarting criminal activity along America’s border with Mexico, Josh Brolin’s maverick government agent Matt Graver explains to his superiors the essence of his mission, and therefore how Sicario 2 differs to its predecessor, released in 2015. Cocaine is no longer the major scourge of traffic between the two countries, he tells them; today it’s people.

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Drugs are all but relegated to a subplot in this second movie, as the crossing routes set up and monitored by the cartels are also providing unseen passage into America for terrorists, the kingpins profiting from Homeland Security’s clampdown at US airports. For Graver and his fellow enforcers the task is the same, but instead of fighting fire with fire again, the plan is to have the evil empires destroy each other.

Wheels are set in motion to kidnap the teenage daughter of a cartel boss and frame his rivals for the abduction, then sit back and watch as the various factions shoot it out and significantly deplete their respective numbers. Consequently, Sicario 2 is just as bloody and brutal as what went before, and involves several familiar faces, with Benicio Del Toro’s taciturn freelance assassin Alejandro also returning, still harbouring a personal revenge vendetta.

What’s missing is the first film’s moral compass, Emily Blunt’s by-the-book FBI agent, who was outraged by the underhand practices employed to battle the menace from south of the border. But director Stefano Sollima (taking over from Denis Villeneuve) gives us another female character whose eyes are opened to the ruthlessness of this overwhelmingly macho world.

When we first see drug overlord’s daughter Isabel Reyes (played by 16-year-old Isabela Moner), she’s beating up a fellow pupil at her private academy, arrogantly aware of the life of privilege afforded by her crime boss dad, and daring the school’s principal to expel her. Once wrenched from her protective cocoon, however, she becomes a pawn in the escalating war that put her on Easy Street in the first place.

This is where, in less skilled hands, Sicario 2 could have come unstuck, as an unlikely bond forms between captive and (unknown to Isabel) captor Alejandro, the latter’s steely take-no-prisoners resolve clearly softened by thoughts of his own slain family that he set out to avenge in the original film. It’s to the credit of both Sollima and returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan that the franchise’s default setting of amorality is largely maintained, save for the occasional glimpse of a character’s conscience. 

Moner is hugely impressive as both the mean and entitled rich daddy’s girl and, after the casual flip of a switch, the frightened innocent caught in the crossfire of a war not of her making. In truth, Brolin’s sandals-wearing good guy out to win by any means necessary is reduced to a supporting player, his credentials having already been established last time around. Similarly, the additions of Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener as white-collar operatives higher up the governmental food chain have a tendency to come across as window-dressing.

Ultimately, the beating, sweaty heart of the film is Del Toro’s extraordinary portrayal of Alejandro, a figure whose single-mindedness and determination to get things done has echoes of Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning hitman in No Country for Old Men and (when revealing his more humane side) Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It’s a mumbling masterclass in conflicted brooding, the fine art of expressing thought and motive without much in the way of discernible changes of expression.

If, for fans of bangs and bullets, this sounds perilously close to namby-pambiness, fear not – the requisite outbursts of shocking violence remain. A brilliantly staged suicide bomb attack on a supermarket early in the film provides plenty of jolts, subsequently complemented by expertly choreographed gun battles and a genuinely unexpected execution scene.

Events late in the film risk stretching credulity, but are key to setting up potential further chapters, and the final scene, with its cheeky steal from The Godfather, suggests this may not be the end of the story.

Traditionally, most movie brands eventually fall foul of the laws of diminishing returns, as later instalments run out of steam to become faded facsimiles of previous triumphs. Sicario 2 admirably sustains the intrigue, atmosphere and drama by subtly refreshing the core story without radical change for change’s sake.

On this showing, there’s no reason to think the saga is about to start firing with anything less than a full magazine.

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Sicario 2: Soldado is released in cinemas on Friday 29 June