You want to talk about the children? Let’s talk about the children. Los Niños have been much on the minds of people on both sides of our southern border amid reports and images of children as young as five years old being held captive in open-air cages like rounded-up Muslim wedding party crashers at Guantanamo Bay. With all that’s been missing being the pitch-black hoods and orange jumpsuits, the outrage and outcry has exceeded even that of the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the southwestern shore of Turkey dead and face down in the damp sand that awakened a seemingly sleeping world to the plight of Syrian refugees who’d been besieged and uprooted for years. Images are worth a thousand words, if not a million. In timely fashion then, arrives Sicario: Day of the Soldado, act two of a cinematic trilogy that deals very much in migrant trafficking and apprehension along our only border that matters, though our chief executive is seemingly going a long way toward making aliens out of Canadians as well. Promoted as an ultraviolent dramatic actioner that plays like an advertisement for Soldier of Fortune with the ever present, incessant action of assault rifles replacing beach frolicking, scantily clan young women for inducement, the film, while being all that, at its heart is a touching saga of a lost child and the personal and physical odyssey she undergoes with her much older benefactor, played by the film’s costar, Benecio Del Toro. In pairing a troubled, vulnerable young girl with a hardened, older stranger in his element in a tense, violent situation in what is essentially a buddy flick, the film is a subgenre staple, recalling Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Jean Reno and a 13-year-old Natalie Portman in The Professional. That development surprised me, for sure, and it’s one that enhances the franchise to new heights. With Emily Blunt’s naïve, compromised FBI special agent now gone, whither the children? Besides the intersecting story of a teenage boy who works unassumingly at a food court in an indoor Houston shopping mall, the young ingénie at its center might as well be Little Red Riding Hood, who discovers too late that her own father is the Big Bad Wolf, even as Del Toro’s sicario seemingly stalks her at every step on her way. It’s their journey through the forest—here, the Mexican desert—upon which the film pivots, but unlike in the promos, the film’s heart is not the forest itself, but the characters lurking within.
That’s a credit to screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water), who is so confident in his franchise he had the temerity to tell Blunt her character’s arc had run its course and her A-list services would no longer be required. He has reason to be; his smart, assertive, fast-paced frame should, at this point, earn him another Oscar nod, though I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if it didn’t, especially given its ultraviolent reputation. Sheridan doesn’t go out of his way to explain or justify anything, no longwinded expositional dialogue explaining how we got here, nor paragraph upon paragraph of introductory text; no, just a simple two-line textual introduction concluding, “This border is controlled by the Mexican cartels.”
That’s a declaration, by sensational omission, that clearly intends to remove us of any notion that it’s controlled by the U.S. Border Patrol or any other American agency, or that Americans are in any sort of control whatsoever, and what follows, from the U.S. border in Texas to a suicide bombing in Kansas City to a pirate interrogation in Somalia to a U.S. Naval command outpost in Djibouti to Colombia and back and across Mexico and back again, is just sublime, heart-pounding action that illustrates the point. It’s implicitly illustrated that the Latin American drug war and its ramifications are the culprit, enhanced by the alarming militarization of the Border Patrol—and its previously outgunned, lone desert sentries equipped with a rifle, binoculars, a water bottle, a packed lunch, and a pickup truck—and who are featured in one heavy-handed nighttime roundup early on. Night-vision goggles, first-person camera high-tech digital surveillance, crackling electronic communications, Sheridan brings it to the fore commando style, enhancing the implication that what was once Kunduz, Samarra, and Sadr City is now the land here just due south. Oppressive U.S. tactics, enhanced interrogation, global military engagement from seas to shining seas, the border war is a microcosm of the audacious blowback of trillion-dollar military imbroglios halfway across the scorched earth that now hit home like exploding glass, shrapnel, and screams in a blackened suburban grocery store, all the while our neglected but trod-upon southern neighbor becomes its own violent, essentially failed state a stone’s throw away. If any of us really knew, besides our own government, who must, how far the cartels have infiltrated into places like San Diego and Houston and what they’ve been up to there, you wouldn’t be amiss in wanting a wall too—the higher, the better—if its construction actually had any chance of succeeding; but that’s my point, not necessarily Sheridan’s, other than that, no, a wall probably wouldn’t.
To give human expression to this haunting debacle, more costly than the Titanic, but no less tragic, we have one of the great American civilian mercenary characters onscreen, Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver. No special-ops weekend wannabe, he’s lived the life with gusto, orchestrated myriad overseas operations, notched countless kills military and civilian, and been rebuked by brass behind closed doors more times than a wayward ward on his way from reform school to death row. Played with dexterous acumen by Brolin, he’s a brusque, burly American everyman with forearms the size of footballs, the kind of guy you’d find devouring hot dogs, peanuts, and beer with family at a ball game, assuming a wet suit at dawn alone on a deserted beach with a surfboard on a Sunday, or serenading colleagues with raunchy, robust tales at a pool table in a noisy, late-night bar. Though worn down by service and by being the fall guy for his unreliable superiors, you’ll never see him take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Graver possesses the pleasant, protective demeanor of your next-door neighbor’s best friend’s father when you go over to visit, but at other times he appears vaguely uneasy, unpredictable, controlled, yet slightly unhinged, even dangerous; a coiled snake, run into him at the wrong time, and he might cut your head off, or at least threaten to.
Problem is, though certainly no 007, he has a license to kill, and he’s the principal’s willful, unmanageable favorite, so when the smoke clears in Kansas City, Graver’s summoned to the office of none other than the U.S. Secretary of Defense (excellently played by Matthew Modine), where he’s faced by a roomful of top brass and civilian advisers who have no idea what they’re doing but who may actually firmly believe that whatever it is, it’s in the best interests of the people they believe they’re serving. The wayward field agent informs the assembled coterie that it’s no longer cocaine, but migrants, that are the lifeblood of the cartels, and at $1,000 a pop, success or failure, who can argue with the math? Besides, it seems some Middle-Eastern terrorists have been snuck in in the bargain. From his seat alone on the couch, Graver’s entrusted to head up another clandestine operation, sidekick Steve Forsing (a mustachioed Jeffrey Donovan (Shot Caller, LBJ) in tow, and all hands are in for another lethal contest of cartel disruption. To fuel what end, only the captain of the doomed liner can envision, and Modine does an impeccable job projecting the kind of stony civilian resolve that only one who has never actually seen action will never know to be exposed as a mirage no matter how many times he stares into the mirror to convince himself otherwise from whence he strays from his executive recliner to the bar for another drink in his posh, imposing, air-conditioned office. The stratagem is so far off-books even for U.S. military-intelligence, Graver has to meet with a dubious international arms trafficker (Shea Whigham, Beirut, The Catcher Was a Spy) just to secure the requisite logistical implements. It’s as if the bar scene compresses Sheridan’s assertion that in pursuing monsters we’ve become them.
Amid this, we meet Isabela (terrific 16-year-old Cleveland, Ohio–native Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Night Knight, The House That Jack Built), the Trojan horse of the operation. A petulant private-school pupil who’s either incorrigible or sensitive and misunderstood, Isabel exhibits dawning mixed-martial arts talents on the playground and when summoned to the principal’s office defiantly asserts the girl had it coming for calling her “narco*&^%$,” and why must she be the one to administer justice when it was true. Isabel is not this principal’s pet, but the caravan of polished high-profile vehicles that take her to and fro the well-heeled grounds suggest the headmaster has no recourse to expel. This very caravan, the bratty 16 year old in tow, is the subject of a brazen daylight abduction that begins and culminates in carnage. You’ve seen the previews, perhaps; when a masked avenger emerges from one of the offending vehicles, takes off his mask to reveal himself, then shoots up an offscreen target with a fusillade of bullets with such expressive vehemence you’d think he’d just witnessed his own family being murdered, it’s none other than Del Toro’s Alejandro along for the ride. Critics have seized upon the scene as illustrative of …Soldado’s pointless, derivative violence, but the scene is actually telling character development. I’m not a fan of The Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper, but he has his fingers on the pulse of this franchise, and when he wrote of Del Toro in Sicario that such sudden explosiveness “will leave you shaken—and grateful to have seen such beautifully dark work,” one couldn’t have expressed it any better. Del Toro, too gifted an actor to be in the service of exploitation, will have more such moments, including an incredible Houdini act in the climax, and it’s his moody, laconic style, his preference to exchange dialogue for gesture and silence, that makes these outbursts more powerful, and the silences more meaningful. Nowhere was this better seen than in Alejandro’s stealth assassination of cartel kingpin Fausto Alarcón in his own hacienda in Sicario, probably the most Zen and satisfying such depiction I’ve seen since Forest Whitaker’s vengeful, climactic, home-invasion assault in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; here, it’s Del Toro’s moving exchange of sign language with a deaf, crushed campesino while on the run with Isabela.
In between, Moner isn’t afforded the same opportunities, regrettably. The triple-threat actress, singer, and dancer spends much of the film recoiling in horror and distress at what’s unfolding around Isabel, namely intense mayhem, all the more so because she’s the focus of it. It’s a live audition for a role as a scream queen, but, given her promise early in the film, Moner seems superior to it. Isabel is escorted across the desert at crooked angles amid all manor of violent exchange, as if she were a teenage Teresa in USA Network’s Queen of the South, with most of the disruption coming from the Mexican Federal Police, you know, the ones who are supposed to be clean now. Much of the Road Warrior–like action, with its ubiquitous precision assault-rifle hostilities, seems to serve as a promo for the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons—the true weapons of global mass destruction. The pressing border dash still leaves accomplished Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World, War Machine) moments to pan the sun-drenched desert, which stretches out in isolated desertion, as if invoking Alex Cox’s essential Highway Patrolman. Soon, the shadowed terrain belongs to Alejandro and Isabela alone, and while the identity of the priceless girl’s protectorate dawns on her, Sheridan is amiss in not serving Moner a few choice cuts of sirloin to dine upon before Isabela starts screaming again. It’s not just for logistics that the sicario is posing as Isabel’s father in this seemingly mythological passage. The duo’s path will be disrupted anew by the interconnecting storyline of the film’s other youth, Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez, the upcoming We Die Young), who’s recruited by an effusive coyote (David Castañeda, The Ascent, Love Sanchez) to join his cartel cousin, Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Murder on the Orient Express, The Magnificent Seven), across the border under the premise of handfuls of cash in American dollars, no less.
Under the direction of Italian Stefano Sollima (Suburra, A.C.A.B.) in the absence of Denis Villeneuve, who had his hands full with Arrival and Blade Runner 2047, the film is dedicated to Jóhann Jóhannsson, who secured an Oscar nod for scoring Sicario and who perished of a drug overdose in February. Icelandic collaborator and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Mary Magdalene, Journey’s End) jarring, ominous synth score should follow suit. I was surprised to see it’s Del Toro, not Brolin, who’s top-billed here, and that the Puerto Rican native slotted in just behind Blunt in the original. The franchise is precipitously moving toward Alejandro, not Graver, at its center. Rodriguez’s Miguel certainly looms on the horizon, but I can’t assume the same for Graver, whose shocking convulsion of indiscriminate wrath late in the game not only is one of the most gratuitous and excessive outbursts committed by an American mercenary in a domestic film, but it could find him obscured for the third installment.
You want to talk about the children? Let’s talk about the children. Unwelcome in Mexico, the Central American youth arriving here in increasing number aboard the freight train Death Express escaping the twin terrors of Mara Salvatrucha, a destabilizing transglobal street gang that originated when the children of migrants fleeing El Salvador’s U.S.–fueled civil war were intimidated by Mexican-American street gangs in the Pico-Union barrio of Los Angeles, deported for petty criminal activity, then brought their lessons along with them upon their return, and paramilitary police forces traditionally trained and equipped by the United States that target youth for extermination in garbage-riddled slums, are met here by vocal anti-immigrant Americans who believed in the right-wing Central American crackdown in the first place, because a dead left-wing peasant, teacher, union activist, or human-rights worker just south of the border was apparently better than a living one. Psychologists and children’s advocates have testified to the deep psychological trauma inflicted upon today’s lost migrant youth separated from their families so chaotically, as if upon entering a German WWII happy labor camp, they may never be reunited again, but what of the youth who are already citizens here confined in juvenile detention and forced upon the trails and campsites of parks and recreational areas as if upon a Trail of Tears who are treated just as poorly, and, quite often, much worse? The border will still be here, when we are gone, and for those who follow, it remains to be seen what they will find. One thing’s for sure, though, for the youth seeking asylum from poverty, gangs, and paramilitary, to migrant children separated from their families upon arrival and those subject to indefinite detention in a disreputable private prison awaiting a deferred decision from a strained, neglected system, to this nation’s own confined juvenile delinquents, to the Mexican cartel and upper-class private-school rich kids like Isabela looking through the glass at their lower income peers being abducted and violently tortured, murdered, and discarded in an essentially failed state in which law enforcement and politicians are completely complicit, to the transgressive youth of Mara Salvatrucha and all its transnational emulators themselves, all in all, they’re only just bricks in the wall.
(Go beyond the previews and promos: No exploitative thriller, per se, Sicario: Day of the Soldado continues in general theatrical release from Columbia Pictures.)
© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours