Talking Movies

July 1, 2018

Notes on Sicario 2

Sicario 2 is an unexpected sequel providing counterprogramming for the World Cup. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Sicario 2 starts off with some of the most disturbing and troubling scenes we’re likely to see this year – a prolonged suicide bombing and a retributive hi-tech torture in Djibouti. But these eventually prove to be a bit of a red herring as we return to fighting cartels in Mexico, and find that two men with no limits (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin) eventually question whether they have reached a point where they hit a moral limit. There are great sequences in Mexico: a kidnapping, a murder in broad daylight, and an ambush on a desert road where the abrupt transition to dirt road covers a convoy in a cloud of dust, neutralising the surveillance in 10 miles utility of the drone above. But ultimately Sicario 2 made me think of Hellboy II. Delighted not to have an audience stand-in getting between us and Hellboy, we all soon discovered that character was as necessary as Ishmael in Moby-Dick. Extremities of behaviour work best when observed by someone like Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in the original.

Sicario 2 feels different from the original, because it is missing so many key personnel. Brolin and Del Toro return but as well as Blunt, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins sit this one out. Composer Johann Johannsson died recently and the picture is dedicated to him, and his music only plays in the last scenes (just before his name appears), reminding us how important his score was to creating the mood of the original. Stefano Sollima directed Italian crime show Gomorrah, and his style of observing extreme violence casually dispensed could best be described as blank in the vein of that show’s 2008 movie progenitor, where Villeneuve and Deakins, while also cold, provided a more Kubrickian detachment; eschewing commentary but inviting your moral reprobation. They also were far more adventurous in their shooting style, here there is less night-vision and thermal-vision photography than your weekly episode of SEAL Team. Ultimately returning writer Taylor Sheridan provides a screenplay that lacks the singular focus that gave Sicario its irresistible momentum and such richness of character.

The abundance of sequels these days means cyclical discussion of the same problems: resetting characters emotionally in order to place on the same reconciliatory arc again in Jurassic World 2, and in this case characters that worked best as supporting enigmas are placed centre stage because they were popular, and by explaining them away you remove the mystique to the point where they are no longer enigmas. This is certainly true with Alejandro, who seems to have reached the end of the line by being made the leading man. This is a pity as Sheridan’s original screenplay was so full of memorable dialogue that you lament the lack of it here as everything becomes a bit more routine, even as he hints at his interest but can’t really develop it in a notion that deserves a full blog post. Ever since Euripides wrote The Trojan Women during the Peloponnesian War artists have been wringing their hands over winning by the wrong methods invalidating the value of such victory. But must you win to wring hands?…

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

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October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

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