Sicario 2: Soldado review: May not match its predecessor, but impressively crafted

Dir, Stefano Sollima, 122 mins, starring: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Catherine Keener, Christopher Heyerdahl, Matthew Modine, Isabela Moner

The Mexican drug cartels may have their share of ruthless, homicidal maniacs but their behaviour pales in comparison to that of the US security forces in Sicario 2: Soldado. This is a sequel which works well enough as a thriller but its political perspective is wayward and often disturbing, especially when the full weight of the United States military is unleashed.

Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is an exercise in contradiction: it wants to make us root for the soulful killer, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), even as he shoots cartel members in the streets, making sure that they put their spectacles on first so they recognise him.

No current American actor matches Josh Brolin when it comes to projecting rugged, red-blooded machismo on screen. He returns as US special agent Matt Graver. As we quickly discover, Graver isn’t the type to waterboard terrorist suspects. That’s far too restrained for him. He’ll have their relatives blown up in front of their eyes until they crack and tell him what he wants.

“You want to see this through, I am going to have to get dirty,” Graver warns the shifty secretary of defence (Matthew Modine) in his very deep voice. “Dirty is exactly why you are here,” is Modine’s response.

Sheridan’s ingenious but convoluted plotting links Islamist bombings of Kansas supermarkets with the Mexican drug lords. Graver plans to provoke a civil war between the cartels by kidnapping the fiery teenage daughter of mobster bigwig Carlos Reyes.

Early on the film appears to be attempting a critique of US immigration policy and of the brutal treatment of the Mexicans who attempt to illegally cross the border. 20 years ago, we’re told, cocaine was the biggest source of profits for the cartels. Today, it is people – the wretched and illicit human cargo.

On the evidence here, director Stefano Sollima, taking over the job from Denis Villeneuve who helmed the first Sicario movie, is a reliable action director, not a master of character-driven drama. If you want helicopters cutting off gangsters on remote Mexican roads or night vision shots of drugs busts or shootouts and assassinations, he will do the job very adequately.

He is helped immeasurably by Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir, whose rumbling, ominous score is similar to that provided for the first Sicario by the late Johann Johannsson.

As the film progresses, any attempts at sociopolitical comment are soon forgotten. It turns into a contemporary western. Del Toro’s killer is the equivalent of a lone gunman like Shane. His family was wiped out by Reyes’ thugs. That doesn’t stop him from forming a very close rapport with the cartel leader’s teenage daughter, Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), whose kidnapping he orchestrates.

The Americans can’t help but bungle their covert mission in Mexico. A major diplomatic row threatens to explode when Brolin and co are caught on camera on cable news, blithely blasting away with their guns at the (corrupt) Mexican police.

Catherine Keener, one of the towering figures of US indie cinema over the past 30 years, has an utterly thankless role as Brolin’s tough-talking, no-nonsense boss. When she tells him to clean matters up, she means “kill everybody involved and don’t leave a mess”.

At times, an otherwise very hardboiled film lurches into extreme sentimentality. In one excruciating scene, Del Toro’s killer communicates with a deaf Mexican peasant using sign language. His relationship with the teenage girl he becomes desperate to protect is similar to that of the tramp and the boy in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.

The death count here is very high – and it’s mainly the Mexicans who are killed. If a young boy refuses to carry out an assassination when ordered to do so, the gun will be turned on him instead. Sollima throws in one memorably ghoulish sequence of a blindfolded character writhing in the desert sand as the blood pours out of his head.

Some of the plot twists here are completely absurd. Men return miraculously from the dead after being shot at point blank. There are touches of ironic humour which seem entirely inappropriate given the slaughter going on around Brolin and Del Toro. The attempts at laying the ground for a second sequel and setting up Sicario as a franchise are likewise very heavy-handed.

Even so, this is a tense and impressively crafted, old-fashioned thriller, lent some heart by Del Toro’s performance. The new film may not match its predecessor but it retains most of the elements which made the first Sicario so successful.

Sicario 2: Soldado hits UK cinemas 29 June.