Score: 3.5 stars ***1/2 out of 4 stars ****
Although more a favorite of critics and art-house patrons, the 2015 “Sicario” still managed to bring in nearly three times what it cost to make ($30 million budget vs. $84+ million worldwide) at the box office. By any studio’s yard stick, that’s more than enough reason to produce another, even though the first ended with nothing resembling a cliffhanger and provided more than sufficient closure.
This point was not lost on director Denis Villeneuve who opted instead to make the excellent but under-performing “Blade Runner 2049” and Emily Blunt — the heart and moral compass of the film — for reasons still unclear was cast for the sequel but then either quit or was jettisoned before shooting began.
The first of many bits of good news: the absence of Blunt and Villeneuve are non-factors here. Italian director Steffano Sollima (“Gomorrah”) pulls off a perfect Villeneuve imitation while still leaving his own stamp on it. The brilliant screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) does return and delivers a follow-up which feels less like a sequel and more of a stand-alone original. More on that later.
Topical to such a degree it could have been conceived last week, “Soldado” opens with two scenes involving issues currently dividing the nation. During a nighttime attempt to illegally cross over the Mexican border into the U.S., a non-Mexican member of the pack — speaking in Arabic and praising Allah — becomes a suicide bomber while taking out several brave American ICE agents in the process. In Kansas City, four Middle Eastern illegal aliens do the same thing in a retail store, killing entire families.
This is the point in the movie where the involvement of Muslim terrorists ends but not how they got to North America in the first place. During the interrogation of an East African bad actor, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) puts forth a theory which makes all kinds of sense and levels a promise towards the prisoner who believes it to be a bluff, an assumption which he immediately regrets.
After a meeting with a milquetoast U.S. Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) giving him carte blanche and encouraging him to “play dirty,” Graver visits his former partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), the Mexican lawyer-turned Black Op. Graver offers Gillick a chance to get in on the action and exact revenge on the cartel drug king who killed his family (taking place before the start of the first film).
The goal is to divide and conquer the drug cartels which will involve the intricately planned kidnapping of a teen child (a beyond impressive Isabela Moner), the daughter of said killer drug king. All of the above goes down in just the first 20 minutes of the film. Please don’t get the impression you’ve been made privy to too much plot as Sheridan has much more to reveal over the next 100 or so minutes.
A seemingly unconnected sub-plot involving a Spanish-speaking Texas teen living near the border who makes an unfortunate career choice weaves in and out of the narrative and doesn’t come to full fruition until far into the third act then delivers a similar powder keg wallop experienced at the onset.
From the start and through the first two acts, Sheridan — the real unseen star of the franchise — is an unflinching hawk. Whether it be the war on drugs, Muslim terrorism or illegal immigration, he has come to the logical conclusion that doing so “by the rules” simply isn’t working. The people committing these unlawful, often deadly acts in or against the U.S. have no qualms whatsoever in taking out anyone or anything standing in their misguided unholy way and the only chance we have to vanquish them is by getting crafty and going off the reservation.
Once the third act begins its slow march towards a throttling conclusion, Sheridan doesn’t quite become a dove, but he does point out what can go awry when things don’t exactly pan out as planned. The same people (with nothing personal to lose) who gave you free reign suddenly turn their backs. Those who espouse change, law and order, suddenly give up and slip into staunch guardians of the entrenched status quo, a.k.a. “The Swamp.”
The sole problem with “Soldado” — and it is significant — comes in the final two scenes which all but guarantees a third installment. Sheridan has said he planned the “Sicario” films as a trilogy, which is fine and dandy but could have really left fans spent and drained with just a few minor tweaks. There are others who will love the ending and will start imagining the different scenarios for the final installment.
Whatever you do, don’t arrive at the movie a second late or leave the theater at any point during the show. Every frame, edit, glance and word of dialogue serves a distinct purpose and missing any of it will be a huge mistake. “Soldado” is a movie of its time if not the exact parallel moment in U.S. history.
Presented in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Spanish sign language with English subtitles.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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