5 years ago, an underrated sequel cemented one of the rare franchises for adults only
A third movie in the action thriller franchise is reportedly in development.
*This article contains spoilers for the original Sicario
While 2015's Sicario felt like a breath of fresh air upon release, in hindsight it feels more like a minor miracle.
After all, it has become increasingly rare in the past 15 years or so to see a certain type of movie - one with big stars, that is aimed at adults and tackles contemporary concerns in an entertaining way - released in cinemas. There are several reasons for this: Hollywood's increased over-reliance on superheroes and pre-existing IP, streaming services emerging as a competitor to theatres and many of these types of mid-budget films essentially being stretched out into becoming prestige TV shows.
Yet, an exception to this was Sicario, a two-hour long action thriller with big ideas focused around Kate Macer (played by a hugely expressive and likeable Emily Blunt), a young and principled FBI Special Agent recruited to take part in a special mission by a US Government task force. Led by the shadowy figures of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), however, key details regarding the task force's operation are kept from Kate - other than it involving hopping between the US-Mexico border and taking extreme measures to cripple the latter country's drug trade.
Sicario impressed on a number levels. For one, it is just a hard-hitting and visceral action flick, with now major Hollywood director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Dune) delivering a handful of muscular and innovative set-pieces - the night vision sequence of the final act is a particular highlight. The filmmaker was able to accomplish this with the help of one of the all-time great cinematographers, two-time Oscar-winner Roger Deakins (1917, No Country for Old Men), whose wide aerial shots of both the American south and Mexico gave the thriller an epic scope that helped it further stand out from its cinematic contemporaries.
The movie also marked the emergence of Taylor Sheridan, now arguably Hollywood's most in-demand screenwriter. Sicario was his first script that made it to the screen, with the scribe later going on to pen the films Hell or High Water and Wind River - which form an unofficial 'modern American frontier trilogy' along with Sicario - as well as create the hit series Yellowstone and its multiple spin-offs.
Indeed, his first screenplay to be made was excellent - thanks to its unique structure, sparse but crackling dialogue, interesting characters and willingness to delve into real-world problems. In regards to the latter, the movie is a powerful look at the brutality doled out by drug cartels, the equally brutal measures taken by certain law agencies to combat them, how innocent civilians wind up caught in the crossfire between the two and, as Sheridan puts it, "the jumbled mess" of the US-Mexico border.
Even better, Sicario was beloved by the masses, managing to accrue three Oscar nominations (a number that seems low now, honestly) for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, as well as Best Original Score for the late and great Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose dark rumbling compositions only add to the film's serious sense of menace.
The movie was also a hit at the box-office, earning $85 million at the box office on a $30 million budget. As such, a sequel - Sicario: Day of the Soldado - was green-lit. It was released three years later with Brolin, Del Toro and Sheridan among the major returning players. This was as acclaimed Italian director Stefano Sollima (TV shows Gomorrah and ZeroZeroZero) replaced Villeneuve at the helm.
Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Donovan and Benicio del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado
The first film's ending saw Matt, revealed to be a CIA officer, explain to Kate that the task force's mission - which involved torturing suspects and killing with impunity - was part of a broader operation to consolidate the cartels into a single entity that the US could more easily control. This is as Alejandro - who we learn was a prosecutor in Mexico that became an anti-cartel hitman after his family was murdered - kills one of the drug lords responsible for the deaths, along with his wife and two sons.
Horrified by all of this, Kate intends on making the task force's dealings public. However, she is threatened into remaining quiet by Alejandro. Meanwhile, the last scene of the film suggests to viewers that, despite America's drastic interference, nothing has really changed regarding cartel activity in Mexico.
Soldado is set a few years later and begins with a suicide bombing by ISIS on American soil that kills 15 people. In response, Matt is given the green light by the US Secretary of Defence (Matthew Modine) to "shake the tree" and create even more chaos for the Mexican cartels, who are suspected of having smuggled the terrorists into the United States. Reuniting with Alejandro, the pair decide that the best way to do this is by instigating a war between the rival cartels. As part of the plan, they kidnap Isabel (Isabela Merced), the daughter of a major drug kingpin - framing another cartel for the crime in a false flag operation.
Like in the first Sicario, the sequel jumps between this main plot line and another one revolving around a more street-level character. In Soldado, that is Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), an American-Mexican teenager living in Texas who is recruited into becoming a 'coyote', someone who smuggles immigrants across the US-Mexico border.
The original Sicario mostly took place from the rookie Kate's viewpoint, with her serving as the audience's introduction to this world of mercilessly violent drug cartels and the equally brutal efforts of various State agencies to counter them. By the end of the first movie, she was so horrified by her experiences that she looked set to turn her back on this type of law enforcement for good.
As such, the character's absence in the sequel makes a lot of sense. Also, it allows the follow-up to delve deeper into the shadowy world Sheridan only scratched the surface of in Sicario, this time from the perspective of Alejandro and Matt - deeply flawed but tough-as-nails men who know it all so well.
While the original mostly stayed set around the US-Mexico border, Soldado is much more globe-trotting. In its opening stretch, it also travels to Africa and South America in a bid to convey to viewers the interconnectivity of the crime world. The end result is fascinating with Sheridan and Sollima breathlessly highlighting how an oil pirate in Somalia, a Mexican criminal gang and an ISIS suicide bomber can be all linked together. On top of this, they also show through the subplot focusing on the teenager Miguel how easy it can be for a relatively normal young boy to be transformed into a sicario just through bad influences and the promises of wealth.
The same increased level of depth can be seen in the parts of the movie focused on Matt and his superiors (represented by Modine's politician and Catherine Keener as a CIA head). Indeed, the film is even more critical of America than the first. Keener and Modine's characters are shown to be reckless and reactionary. Based on unverified information, they give Matt and his crew (Jeffrey Donovan shines again as a wise-cracking colleague of Brolin's character) essentially a free pass to cause carnage over in Mexico in retaliation for the terrorist attacks.
However, when Matt does just that but the politician's intel is revealed to be half-baked, the Secretary of Defence is quick to pull the plug on the entire operation midway through, with Keener's CIA head then ordering Matt and his crew to kill their colleague Alejandro and the teenager Isabel for knowing too much.
It should be said more sprawl inevitably leads to more mess and indeed, the sheer number of shady law figures, different criminal factions and double crosses can become a little tricky to fully follow. However, the film crystallises together in its stunning final third in which Alejandro - unable to kill Isabel, the daughter of one of the men that murdered his own child, having grown attached to her - is forced to flee into the Mexican desert with the teen. Turning into a modern Western, the film sees the pair provided with food and shelter by a kindly deaf farmer, Angel (Bruno Bichir), before they attempt to sneak over the US border to safety via Miguel's illegal smuggling route.
Inevitably, things do not go according to plan, with Sollima - who would later go on to cover similar themes in his TV crime thriller masterpiece ZeroZeroZero - managing to rival Villeneuve's hard-hitting yet elegantly staged action when proceedings eventually erupt into gunfire and explosions.
All this being said, Soldado was less well received than Sicario - earning only a 62% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to the original's 92%. Common complaints included the lack of Emily Blunt, as well as Alejandro and Matt appearing to act out of character to give the movie a somewhat hopeful ending (though I would argue its final scenes can be interpreted in a more ambiguous way).
That said, the sequel was another minor hit, grossing just over $75 million on a reported $35-45 million. A third film in the franchise, titled Sicario: Capos ('capos' meaning 'drug lords') is said to be in development. However, in a recent interview with Variety, Brolin revealed that, despite high demand by fans, it has been tough to get funding for Capos - as it has been for other mid-budget adult aimed movies.
"These types of movies are not necessarily getting made so much anymore. $20-45 million movies. Would No Country for Old Men get made today? Would True Grit get made today? Would Sicario get made today? Sicario 3, we've been trying to get that right and get that going but why hasn't it happened? How long can you wait?
"A tough movie to get made even though the two made money. And people are asking about it all the time."
Whatever criticisms people may have of Soldado, it certainly satiated a certain type of filmgoer thirsty for glossy movies with Oscar-winners and nominees and exciting action that also happen to be about real issues and the world we live in today. For all this I say roll on Sicario: Capos.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is streaming in Ireland on Lionsgate+.
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