It’s sadly typical of the state of a certain stripe of film fandom that there’s a movement out there to cut a version of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario which minimises or removes viewpoint character Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) – just so (presumably male) action fans can get off on vigilante avenger Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and spook Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) torturing and murdering irredeemable drug cartel scumbags free of any feminised moral ambiguity which might spoil their fun. As it happens, Kate is relocated out of the story and not even mentioned in this follow-up – still scripted by Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water), with Stefano Sollima of the Gomorrah TV series stepping in as director – and the new female character caught up in a labyrinthine conflict is Isabela (Isabel Moner), the teenage daughter of a cartel boss who is abducted by the good guys posing as bad guys so as to trick some badder guys into a war with some ever worse guys. Moner – so much better here than in her spunky waif turn in the last Transformers film – is mostly watchful and in danger, which bumps Del Toro up to de facto lead.
In a scattering of tense prologues, we get a helicopter raid on a party of illegals crossing the desert into America, a terrorist attack in Kansas City, kid Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) dropping out of school to take a gig with a cartel and Matt torturing a Somali pirate for information about people-smuggling. The trigger of the actual plot is the unnamed US president deciding to reclassify Mexican cartels as terrorists in order to excuse even more extreme measures against them, which is why Matt’s boss (Catherine Keener) authorises bringing in loose cannon Alejandro and setting in motion a Mission: Impossible-style series of stings and scams designed to get the cartels warring with each other. The first half of the film is taut and unsettling, as reprehensible people carry out the plan … but, in a paradoxical instance of believability sabotaging a thriller, a crucial plot turn that absolutely rings true (the vacillating Prez pulls the plug before the mission is finished because the news cycle has moved on) means the story falls apart as the team breaks up. Alejandro almost bonds with Isabela, whom he tries to protect in the desert – though she knows exactly who he is and what her family did to his. Matt is ordered to shut the sicario down, stretching even his dutiful ruthlessness perhaps to breaking point. And fresh-faced Miguel gets deeper into the life, as if he were being prepped for a bigger role in Sicario 3.
Sollima stages the shoot-outs with a mix of suspense and shock. The key betrayal and firefight, as one half of a secure convoy turn out to have been bought by the cartels, is a standout action scene. And both Del Toro and Brolin are excellent, though Keener is stuck with exposition and valuable players Jeffrey Donovan and Shea Whigham are underused. The scrappiness of the second half, as sub-plots get lost and connections aren’t quite made, means the film loses its grip when it ought to be going into overdrive – and there are a few plot turns hinging on coincidence or convenience that have that ‘just get on with it’ feel of a sequel too busy setting up its franchise’s trilogy status to keep its all own ducks in a row. As the drafting of Sollima suggests, this sort of crime/punishment epic saga has been co-opted by long-form TV, where each minor player would get an episode to develop and arcs could play out over a season. What TV can’t do is fill a huge screen with yellow dusty landscape – the craggy faces of men who’ve seen and done too much as well as the contested border scrubland where the dirtiest deeds take place – and cut together hard-hitting big-scale action scenes where the war on drugs comes close to being blitzkrieg.