Violence and mayhem along the southern border.
Fans of the original Sicario may have been surprised when the sequel was announced, but apparently writer Taylor Sheridan had a larger image all along. We pick up some time after the events of the first one, and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is still functioning as the heavy hand of the U.S. government. His partner, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is back in Columbia at the beginning of the film, and the two must meet up later. Emily Blunt is entirely absent from this narrative, and her absence is a major topic of debate.
Instead of drug cartels exclusively, the new threat is Islamic extremists using the southern border to transport men/arms to commit a mass suicide bombing at a store. After the attacks, the president (who is left unnamed throughout the film) puts the cartels on the terrorist watch list. The decision to name them as terrorists frees Graver and co. to wreak havoc along the border as they work to destabilize all of northern Mexico. The goal is to get the cartels to kill one another, so mass assassinations and kidnapping are planned, and this is where the meat of the film (the first half anyway) is.
Sicario 2 may be the unluckiest film ever in terms of social climate upon release. With Mexican immigrants being put in camps en masse, and the separation of children, a film about the U.S. military and intelligence agencies kidnapping a young Mexican woman, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) (who happens to be a cartel boss’ daughter) ring a little problematic. It is probably impossible to totally remove oneself from the current events when watching the film, but I did try. One thing I love about Sheridan’s movies is that no matter how problematic they might be there is always a reasonable amount of truth to them.
A lot of folks hated Emily Blunt’s character in the first film, but she was the sole moral compass. In her absence, we see tactics that are quite shocking deployed with little to no thought. Alejandro is still a vicious killer, and Graver (and his team) operate as scalpel precision, leaving no one standing in their way. On the one hand, the action scenes are top notch. Tense and riveting camera work, sound editing, and great set pieces put some of the moments among the best in recent film. However, there is always a lingering question of ethics—and I think that is the point.
Inexplicably, the previews for the film spoil that Alejandro is asked to kill Isabel when the operation goes south, and he refuses. Why this was revealed is beyond me, and it is really the first half of the film that will be more surprising to audiences. I think spoiling this was a bad choice on the trailer designer’s part. Anyway, Alejandro chooses not to kill “this one” and this puts him on a dangerous path, and opposing Graver. I have seen several calling this a reverse Stockholm Syndrome or something like that, but I disagree. Alejandro’s decision to not murder this one particular person is because there is no point to it. We have seen him kill children before, but there was a point there (terror). The morality present in this film is inconsistent, but that is because the characters are inherently inconsistent on their own ethics.
Even Graver does some things that seem out of character, but this seems more due to him wanting to stick it to his bosses than any actual moral sense. For me, this made the film even more interesting as we dive deeper into the murky waters of counter-terrorism, foreign policy, and how to combat the drug cartels. I get that some might see this apologetics, but I think Sheridan is doing something more complex than simply ignoring massive social issues.
Granted, the film is not without its flaws. Many of the actors do a fantastic job, in particular Moner, who starts the film as a fiery and defiant teen, but slowly becomes void of all emotion after so much trauma. Almost everyone does a great job—almost. We follow a young man (I seriously cannot remember his name) who is slowly introduced into the cartel world. The parallel story adds almost nothing, and our forgettable young man never says much. It is impossible to connect to someone who appears to have been directed to “walk in and look kind of sad, then walk here and do the same.” I felt no connection here, and the entire subplot leads to a couple unbelievable moments that detract from the film as a whole. Removing this subplot entirely would have made for a better film.
The ending is likewise a topic of dislike, but I will not spoil anything. I will just say it should have been something different.
The most burning question is probably whether or not a sequel was needed at all. Maybe? I liked the action, and the characters are interesting—even if they are all not exactly likable. The film works on many levels, but falters on others. In the end, we have a fairly uneven narrative that is most certainly going to get another follow-up. I think the best thing to do here is to not compare it to the original, and think of this as a continuation of character rather than tone (if that makes any sense). The current-events that haunt this film will also likely influence opinion. If you’re looking for a film that asks hard questions without much nuance (and no answers) this one is worth a watch. 7/10.