‘Sicario’ sequel would have been a lot better with Emily Blunt in it

In “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” violence, terror and chaos reign at the US-Mexico border. Escapist fare, it ain’t. (One scene takes place in McAllen, Texas, the site of recent protests at a migrant detention center.)

This sequel, directed by Stefano Sollima, wipes the nuance from Denis Villeneuve’s cynical but morally conflicted original and doubles down on the bloodshed, dropping Emily Blunt’s voice-of-reason FBI agent and letting loose hardened antiheroes Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro).

Following a particularly bloody encounter at the border, the US government aims to start a war between Mexican drug cartels. To tell you exactly why would, I suppose, be a spoiler, but a government lackey (Catherine Keener) makes it clear to her hired guns that “I do not need to remind you what happens if they discover it’s us.” Graver, again tasked with metaphorically kicking the beehive, is unfazed: “I’ll do whatever you need. Just point the way.”

The ensuing expedition is a nasty and often repetitive plod, non-leading characters’ lives regarded as blithely as targets in a first-person shooter game. But del Toro and Brolin — the latter of whom seems to be aging into sort of a terrifying Jeff Bridges — are never less than riveting as they burrow into their characters: Highly intelligent, impeccably trained fighters, their shared capacity for cruelty goes hand in hand with their disdain for a callous world.

Unfortunately, they’re plunked down in a film with a ham-fisted statement that seems to be “See? There are bad dudes on all sides,” demonstrated with as much mayhem and gore as possible. Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the teen daughter of a drug lord, is kidnapped by Graver and Gillick to be used as a pawn. By the time Gillick assures her “nothing’s going to happen to you,” as she is literally spattered with another man’s brains, I’d halfway checked out. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan seems to be channeling the Wolverine father-figure storyline from “Logan” in the kinship between Gillick (whose family, we learned in the first film, was murdered) and Reyes. But he’s too distracted by the constant gunning down of bad, worse and worst men to give it much thought.

The film’s ostensible emotional center is Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), a Texas teen who’s gradually lured into human border smuggling by a sketchy cousin. But even he’s not allowed to show much emotion as he progresses along from curious and scared to dead-eyed. Without a humanizing element like Blunt’s character, this whole grim affair is just a race to the bottom in which everyone loses.

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