Directed by: Stefano Sollima || Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Screenplay by: Taylor Sheridan || Starring: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castaneda
Music by: Hildur Guonadottir || Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski || Edited by: Matthew Newman || Country: United States || Language: English, Spanish
Running Time: 122 minutes
Much like the burgeoning John Wick (2014, 2017, 2019) franchise, Stefano Sollima’s sequel to the quasi-arthouse flick and powerhouse crime drama, Sicario (2015), is a franchise expansion that challenges the norms of modern Hollywood. Where once sequels were considered a risk and needed a guarantee on return on investment, nowadays the Hollywood studio mindset has flipped to where most every mainstream blockbuster is engineered from the ground up to establish a franchise.
Adaptations, remakes, and series reboots disguised as long awaited sequels (also known as “soft reboots”) are greenlit with the intention of not one, but at least several profitable films being made. Whereas Hollywood used to be risk-averse in decades past, now it is all about maximum investment for maximum profit, spending tons of money to make tons of money; this is still averse to certain risks, in a way, given how franchises are seen as safer bets (re: more likely to earn money) if they’re part of an established brand; the point I’m trying to make is that studios expect marketable franchises, not marketable standalone films, which makes films like John Wick 2 and Soldado so exceptional. They’re sequels to original films conceived as standalone features.
Unlike John Wick 2, however, which equaled if not bested its predecessor, Soldado is a lesser film than Sicario. Soldado is a solid crime thriller and I would recommend seeing it (skip to the official recommendation at the bottom if you wish to avoid spoilers… ), but 2015’s Sicario is one of the better films to have been released in the last decade; not only is it an unparalleled crime drama, but its subtle hybridization of dramatic, action, and Western genre tropes gave it undeniable charisma and an unforgettable identity.
Though Soldado acknowledges this legacy, it does not embrace it, instead forging its own path based on the continued work of acclaimed screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, not to mention the new guidance of Italian filmmaker, Sollima, and director of photography (DOP), Dariusz Wolski; the sequel also drops previous lead, Emily Blunt, from the roster, her arc having been completed in the previous film. Benefits of this anthology-like approach include Soldado not feeling like a retread or facsimile of Sicario, Sollima bringing his own auteur style to the brand, and more opportunities for returning star Benecio del Toro to brood as the enigmatic hitman, Alejandro Gillick. Drawbacks to this change in leadership include a lack of moral ambiguity that defined the original Sicario, the lack of the visual consistency of previous DOP Roger Deakins and director Dennis Villeneuve, and skewed development of some of its characters.
Anyone dismissing Soldado as thematically empty or racist opportunism in the wake of Donald Trump is, as I often conclude, letting their sociopolitical inclinations corrupt their artistic analysis, but those expecting Sollima and Wolski to compare to Villeneuve and Deakins will need to check those expectations at the theatre door. The former two do not come without considerable experience, Sollima having cut his teeth in his native Italian cinema and various television crime dramas, while Wolski has worked on everything from Alex Proyas’ Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998) to numerous Ridley Scott collaborations (e.g. Prometheus , Alien: Covenant ), but their work is a level below the latter two filmmakers. Even if Taylor Sheridan’s script were perfect, a career magnum opus (it’s not), it would be difficult if not impossible for Soldado to equal its predecessor.
That being said, anyone in the mood for a more straightforward action-thriller laced with brutal crime drama elements will find quality filmmaking in Soldado. The selling points of this film are obvious: Returning castmembers del Toro and Josh Brolin give excellent performances, while new co-stars Isabela Moner and Elijah Rodriguez broaden this chemistry. The film’s action sequences are well staged, edited, and utilize interesting cinematographic perspectives, while the narrative expands the previous film’s analysis of US-Mexican border society in fascinating ways.
Soldado is strongest when it channels its crime drama influences, namely that of the suspense before horrific violence occurs. This is most prevalent in another border-crossing sequence that sees del Toro, Brolin, Moner, and their CIA teammates get jumped by the Mexican federal police (rather than the other way around, as expected), and in the sequence where del Toro is taken hostage by human traffickers while trying to smuggle Moner back north across the border. In each sequence, I could not predict what would happen from one moment to the next, and Wolski’s use of semi-immobile long-takes stretched this suspense into what felt like eternity. Sollima’s ability to stage these set-pieces for maximum tension is perhaps Soldado’s greatest attribute.
Soldado’s weaknesses stem from Solima’s inability to pace acts according to the story’s narrative flow, making for a drawn out, whiplash opening and an abrupt, confusing ending. Some of this may be a function of Sheridan’s screenplay, but much of the story’s lackluster pacing feels indicative of poor decisions made in the editing room and in post-production. To be frank, I would’ve streamlined the introductory terrorism sequences to two scenes maximum, condensed most of the false flag operations conducted by Brolin et al. to a rapid-fire montage sequence, devoted more of the second act to character development between del Toro and Moner, and altered the final act to include a confrontation between Brolin and del Toro of some sort.
My critiques here are not to force Soldado into a Sicario clone — that would be the worst-case scenario, in my assessment — but rather to streamline certain narrative details to enhance the character conflicts and thematic undertones of this film. The first Sicario was not a story-driven film and neither is this one, so committing to allegory via hard-edged characters would enhance Soldado’s already strong cinematographic elements. As is, the simplification of del Toro’s empathy for Moner and the lack of any rock-and-a-hard-place decision between him and Brolin leaves the film’s visual tension and motifs feeling underutilized. The film doesn’t miss its mark so much as it hesitates.
As stated above, Soldado is a good film and one that I would recommend to most people, though not to everyone; that last phrase separates its cinematic impact from Sicario, a film so good it makes me hurt thinking about it. I think it’s great a property like Sicario, or rather the world and style of that film, earned a sequel like John Wick did against the current backdrop of so many vapid, bland, repetitive Hollywood franchises; it’s even more satisfying that Soldado remains a strong film. Its editing, pacing, and screenplay missteps are regrettable, though worth the startling, suspenseful highs of the film’s second and even third acts. Soldado was almost destined to never be a purebred stallion, but it runs just fine and always deserved to be in the race.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Soldado revisits the seedy, complicated thematic territory that made Villeneuve’s 2015 feature a modern classic, and while it is nowhere near as consistent as that film, it is consistently engaging, brutal, and unapologetic in its cinematic execution. Its cast, set-pieces, and directorial vision are strong.
— However… it’s in the details where Soldado struggles, like its slow pacing in Act One and the accelerated pacing in Act Three, not to mention del Toro’s curious sympathies for Moner and his anti-climatic relationship with Brolin. A beating heart is there — it’s just not fully activated.
? They’re from New Jersey!