After a spate of terrorist bombings in the US, the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) authorises CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to begin an operation that'll smash the Mexican cartels and start a war amongst them by kidnapping a young daughter (Isabela Moner) of kingpin.
When 'Sicario' landed on screens in 2015, there had been few films like it that could match it for intensity and visual finesse. Denis Villeneuve's command of pacing and tension mixed with Roger Deakins' painterly colours enriched Taylor Sheridan's sharp, intelligent screenplay. In essence, it was exactly the kind of film that people complain that studios don't make any more. The success of 'Sicario' brought Taylor Sheridan's work as a screenwriter to notice and Denis Villeneuve went on to direct 'Blade Runner 2049' and saw him reunited with Deakins again. A sequel, however, seemed unlikely for a number of reasons.
Firstly, 'Sicario' was such a self-contained story that it required no further investigation or examination. The characters therein - Brolin's oily CIA operative, del Toro's ice-cold hunter, Blunt's baffled FBI agent - were sketched out so as to understand their motivations and went no further beyond. Sure, there were references to their past, but since when was any of that reason for a sequel? Thankfully, 'Sicario 2: Soldado' escapes the pitfalls of almost every other sequel borne from success and smartly sidesteps this. The film opens with a particularly brutal collage of scenes that serve as the impetus to set Brolin on the loose once again. As he so succinctly puts in the scene that's on the trailer, he needs to get "dirty". This involves a series of pitched battles on the streets of Mexico with Brolin and his team of dead-eyed mercenaries, including del Toro, which eventually results in them kidnapping the daughter of Carlos Reyes, a cartel warlord that del Toro's character has previous beef with.
As you'd expect, both Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro's previous experience in the role means they're lived in and natural in their performance. With a laptop and a few lines of dialogue from Brolin's first appearance on screen, we immediately understand what he's capable of and that of the country he serves. Again, like 'Sicario', tension and dread just fills the air and while it may not have the same panache that Villeneuve has, it's still effective. Director Stefano Sollima, who began his early career working in warzones from news organisations like CNN, understands how to capture action and give it an impact without sacrificing cohesive visual storytelling like, say, Paul Greengrass. You know what's happening and while the camera might shake, it's not so much that it's barely registering.
Oddly enough, what's missing from 'Sicario 2: Soldado' is a way into the world. With the first one, Emily Blunt was the audience's surrogate. Through her, we experienced the depravity and casual violence of the world that Brolin and del Toro lived in. Here, there's no such hand-holding and that makes it all the more jarring and disturbing. Not only that, Blunt's character being female offered a unique perspective that you don't normally see in these kind of films. It's a shame that Villeneuve and Blunt didn't return for the sequel, but there's more than enough here to make up for their absence.