You know, it feels like a pretty rum time to put this flick out. It comes hard to buy the grim premonitions that the most valuable cargo that the cartels are smuggling across the border is refugees. With what how it doesn’t really square with what’s happening in America right now. Describing this film’s opening scenes is perhaps the most instructive way to proceed right now.
We open on American helicopters at the border, their harsh spotlights picking out backpacked figures running across a field. The cars arrive and the migrants are forced to the ground, one breaks away from the group. Kneeling on the ground some agents advance upon him guns drawn, ‘Allahu akbar.’ The grenade in his fist explodes.
The next morning officials survey the scene of the crime. Someone has laid out the evidence, ‘Prayer mats.’ they intone for way of an unwarranted explanation.
We are now at some supermarket. Four Middle Eastern men walk in as a group, disperse among the aisles. Then the bombs go off. Three of them. Everything is pandemonium, eventually the camera settles on a very white woman, with her very innocent looking daughter. Standing between them and the exit is the last man, they approach with trepidation, the girl clinging around the mother’s waist for support. We focus on their fear, their empathy, their innocence. These are virtuous people. The storefront explodes.
A newscast. Some Department of Defence of something, a talking head, lectures the audience. Enemies of the Nation, greatest threat to the public sorta shit. In Libya, Josh Brolin’s hard-bitten, results-at-any-cost paramilitary abducts a member of the terrorist organisation and proceeds to call drone strikes on his family until he reveals what he knows. The man’s family dies as he distressedly proclaims his ignorance.
It’s an insane opening gambit. Trite and inaccurate and offensive and totally bonkers. Like, each subsequent thing it throws at you is represents such a wild and improbable escalation that you just white knuckle it through that five minute stretch. Surely there’s no Hollywood producer that would read this and think it’s advisable?
In the cinema my hopeful mind was grasping for something. Is it possible that this thing is like a Starship Troopers type, self-critical, in-universe fascist propaganda feature? Like, those opening scenes are enough to make me believe that this could be the case. A knowing and deliberate takedown of right wing immigration doctrine and the lies those in power tell to keep the populace complicit in the atrocity of governmental violence. But then the film keeps going. And Josh Brolin is hired by the government to destabilise those pesky cartels. And he in turn picks up Benicio Del Toro, the only hitman hard enough to get the job done.
Together they draw up an increasingly ridiculous plot to kidnap the daughter of a prominent narco, pin the blame on a rival cartel, and allow chaos to ensue. Here’s where the film can’t decide: is it a ridiculous and pulpy caper that serves to glorify these bad dudes and the havoc that they leave in their wake? Or is it a po-faced examination of the realities of America’s southern border? Like any disappointing centrist, the film plumbs for both and ends up in a middle ground where it has no real decisive point of view and yet ends up being casually racist anyway because that how the world be at this point don’t it?
I mean, I say casually racist. It’s easy for it to seem casual if you’re some Brit fuck, but the film is wholly engaged in hate. In the entire running time of a flick based almost entirely in Mexico there is a single solitary honourable countryman. Everyone else is a criminal, or an associate, an informant maybe. The corruption, it is implied runs through the veins of the country. Up to the point that the only way to maintain your innocence is to live off the grid, a deaf man in a remote desert hut.
I’m excluding Del Toro’s hitman Alejandro from the honourable list because the film is never sure what to do with him. I mean, the man’s talented but he’s working with what he can get. The film seems to realise that Brolin’s character is a boring, obnoxious, pain. So committed to this under thought plan that when everything starts going to shit it’s impossible to even respect his resolve. So the hero has to become the hitman, and they give him a kid so he becomes a poor man’s Leon, or maybe Logan. The bad adoptive dad to his enemy’s daughter who suddenly can’t bring himself to see harm come to this child.
Isabela Moner is the child. She plays it well, but there’s only so many screams and whimpers that one can give in two hours. Elijah Rodriguez plays a teen on the American side of the border who is gradually seduced into the life of an operative for some unnamed cartel, his performance is vulnerable and giving in a film that has no time for the detailing that he so readily offers up.
Because the film has no compulsion to examine these people’s lived experiences. Because the film lazily hammers home, ‘Foreigners bad, foreigners untrustworthy’, so twists and contorts its lens throughout to ensure that viewpoint is consistently expressed. It’ll take more than a shamefully underutilised Catherine Keener to show up every half an hour to problematize the notion.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a cartoon version of reality. Yet it insists upon its own credentials, with its important stars and sub-Roger-Deakins cinematography. One might say its crime is its pretension, but that ain’t true. Its crime is in the fact that there ain’t going to be no one who believes that this Brolin level douche is going all Ghost Protocol on the President’s insistence. They’ll just be happy to have it confirmed that a country, and its people, are uniformly monstrous.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is currently screening in UK cinemas.