If there’s one thing that the Sicario series is trying to teach us, it’s that America never learns. Its foreign policy and obsession with control over every part of the world consistently leads to ceaseless cycles of violence that the USA then tries its best to ignore. Soldado, the follow up to Denis Villeneuve’s astonishing 2015 original, hits many similar beats to its predecessor. Yet, instead of feeling repetitive, it instead hammers home returning writer Taylor Sheridan’s point that the world can be a nightmare, and all the international military and intelligence communities can do is make it worse. It’s a bleak message, sure, but executed with enough thrills to still keep it completely compelling.
A very self-contained story, Sicario wasn’t crying out for a sequel, and the loss of director Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and lead Emily Blunt for Soldado had many worried. Whilst it isn’t on the same level as Sicario, and can’t match the steely, dominant swagger of Villeneuve’s filmmaking, Soldado manages to dodge the common sequel issues by not really being one. There’s no real plot carry over between the two films, though the central characters of hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and CIA spook Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) return, instead maintaining the essential cold, oppressive atmosphere that defined the original.
This time out, the scope has widened. After a truly terrifying suicide bombing is staged by ISIS militants smuggled over the US border by Mexican cartels, the President adds them to the terrorist list, bringing in Graver to head up a secret war against them. To do so, Graver re-enlists Alejandro to set two rival cartels at each other’s throats, sowing the chaos that US foreign policy thrives on. The initial attack has Alejandro kill a top lawyer for the Matamoros cartel, before kidnapping the youngest daughter – Isabel (Isabela Moner) – of the kingpin of the Reyes cartel, making it look like Matamoros retaliation.
Inevitably, things go profoundly wrong, Alejandro finding himself isolated with Isabel and at odds with Graver. Though much of the coverage of Soldado has labelled it Trump-ian, with the threats of ISIS and Mexican illegal immigration folded into one, these right-leaning politics only make up the early portions of the film, before being subverted and cast aside in favour of something more nihilistic. It’s still not a hugely attractive ideology, but few, if any, writers can wring more excitement out of it than Sheridan.
His fourth muscular, grown-up thriller script in as many years, Sheridan has built a reliable brand of gruff, highly capable men and women of violent dispositions who still feel genuine fear and are put in the way of real harm. His dialogue is unfussy and only occasionally drops into action cliché, and the clear, clinical visual style suits the writing very well. New director Stefano Sollima – of the TV version of Gomorrah fame – cleaves close to the aesthetic established by Villeneuve, but adds a few flourishes of his own, especially towards the third act as he cleverly plays around with the cold, desaturated colour scheme.
Another stylistic holdover is the low rumbling score from an Icelandic composer – this time Hildur Guðnadóttir, a previous collaborator with the tragically departed Johann Johannsson, whose work on the original was a vital component in its masterpiece status. It keeps you on edge, always foreboding even when there isn’t violence right around the corner. When action does arrive, the set-pieces are thrilling, and there’s generally at least one moment of proper inspiration in each set-piece. Soldado is unflinching in its brutality, but doesn’t dip into gratuitous gore, nor does it resort to exploitative threats towards the 16 year old Isabel as various factions attempt to claim her for their own ends.
Soldado lacks some of the ‘wow’ factor of Sicario – the loss of Deakins is felt, as is the confused, contagious panic of Kate Mercer, and the new ‘caught in the middle’ character replacing reluctantly corrupt cop Silvio isn’t as effectively tragic. But this is still a top-tier political action thriller, led by a immensely charismatic performance from del Toro, and in the age of shared-universe franchises, the idea of an adult anthology crime/war franchise is novel enough to be welcome, as long as Taylor Sheridan remains steering the ship.