There are no heroes in this world. That was the message so brilliantly and bitterly delivered by 2015’s Sicario, which brutally crushed Hollywood perceptions of good guys and bad guys by lifting the lid on US undercover operations tackling the drug war and revealing the vicious and violent characters working on both sides. That Sicario 2: Soldado manages to be an even darker, badder, bloodier beast than its predecessor is an impressive achievement, then. Which only makes it all the more frustrating when the film lurches unconvincingly off its dark, dusty road in search of cheap, sequel-baiting path toward the light.
We re-join the action an indeterminate time after Sicario to find the drug war escalating further out of control. After a horrific terrorist attack on US soil is linked to cartel-backed Mexican people smugglers, Josh Brolin’s coldly pragmatic covert ops specialist is tasked with inciting a war between rival gangs. For that he needs an agent of chaos and immediately turns to Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a ruthlessly efficient hitman who has no qualms about gunning down cartel lawyers in broad daylight to send a message. Introduced in the first film as a relentless vengeance-bent killing machine, Soldado adds deeper layers to Alejandro’s character, bringing del Toro’s tragically soulful performance to the fore as he comes into contact with the kidnapped daughter of a druglord and finds himself at odds with his employers.
While he might not possess original director Dennis Villeneuve’s mastery of pulsating rhythm or hypnotic pacing, Stefan Sollima (Suburra) shows he has an eye for slick, gritty set-pieces. A bone-shattering suicide bombing is the standout sequence, viscerally exposing the harrowing mundanity of modern terrorism. That scene neatly segues into a Zero Dark Thirty-style raid in Somalia, as Sollima launches into a series of taut, confident set-pieces that’ll make your jaw ache.
Intersecting with the tale of Miguel, a seemingly unrelated young man being inducted into cartel life by his cousin, the plot is dense and rather heavy-going, meaning the story takes a while to click into gear in the early stages. But once the central premise has been explained and the bodies start to pile up, things hurtle towards an inevitably bleak and bloody conclusion as returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan reaffirms his reputation for delivering smart, surprising character studies of violent men.
Having built such a tense, absorbingly complex story, it’s hard to understand why Sollima and Sheridan pull their fingers off the trigger at the final moment. The first film was defined by its remorseless approach to tackling the drug war in unflinching detail. It took Emily Blunt’s virtuous FBI agent and dismantled her sense of right and wrong so ruthlessly, there was nothing left of her character to return for this follow-up. Soldado is the antithesis of that approach. Having steered their characters into desperately grim situations of their own making, Sollima and Sheridan work hard to find implausible ways to get them out of harm’s way so that they can safely return when a third film inevitably arrives, which a clunky final scene all but confirms. There’s undoubtedly more stories to be told in this rich, complex world Sheridan has crafted, but if future instalments are going to match the success of Sicario they need to stay true to the fundamental tenet of this dark, violent world. This is no place for heroes.
Runtime: 122 mins (approx.)
Director: Stefan Sollima
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez