Friday, July 6, 2018

Itsa Me, Sicario!

This week on the Do Some Damage podcast I cover Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the unlikely sequel to the unwieldy would-be 2015 blockbuster, Sicario. Like many people I know I had mixed reactions to the first film which had undeniably great cinematography and sound design and editing and a swell cast working with good dialogue from a script that...

What the fuck exactly did that script think it was doing?

It was advertised as an issue-movie; a serious dramatic examination of the war on violence and corruption of big narco business inching its way under the panty-line of the all-mighty, innocent complicity of American (I mean US) policy, but instead delivered a thriller that also worked as a horror film of tooth-grindingly effective suspense sequences only to be hi-jacked in the final act by a long-lost macho revenge pulp of yore.

The inarguable competence and even excellence of every other area of the production spoke to this not being a fluke - way too dark to be the product of studio notes derailing a project to make it more commercially digestible - so this... this was the plan the whole time. I needed to watch it again (and again) to chew on the choices.

Sicario under-performed at the domestic box office so it was a big surprise when a sequel was green-lit. I was very curious and full of anticipatory butterflies. I had questions man. Instead of rolling my eyes and immediately demoting the status of the original, the idea of a sequel was so puzzlingly juicy because I had absolutely no idea what it would be. The switcheroo that was so divisive in the first could never be undone nor repeated - who would the main character be? That question alone was worth the whole thing to me - finally, a sequel that would actually help me decide how I felt about the original.

So... Day of the Soldado begins with a couple of sequences that plays like FOX News jerk-off material tying drug cartels to international Islamic terrorism and giving the suits all the excuse they need to get super awful. They enlist Josh Brolin's ever committed to comfortable footwear spook to "get dirty." Brolin is first seen using missile strikes against civilians and private residences as leverage against a detainee he's questioning - a threat he makes good on, by the way. And the prisoner? Isn't a jihadist or even a cartel gangster. He's a pirate, a smuggler (he's Han Solo in the movie of his life) and it's clear that we are the fucking evil empire in this situation. The state department's strategy is to get the cartels so embroiled in fighting each other that the last ones standing are relatively easy pickings for the alphabet soup of US agencies to control. "Winning" isn't the goal. The goal is stability.

Brolin's plan? Kidnap the teenaged daughter of one of the cartel leaders and make it look like it was done by a rival cartel. True, this was all written and shot before the 'wait, are we really comfortable with being the country who uses the threat of separating brown children from their families as leverage to deter immigrant hopefuls and asylum seekers from coming here?' conversation was so hotly and publicly discussed, but holy shit - this is super dark.

Later, when the operation goes pear-shaped and Brolin bro Benicio Del Toro is out on his own with the abducted girl, the word comes down to abort and wipe it all down - kill Del Toro and the girl and cover up anything that could lead back to US involvement in her disappearance.

At this point we're invited to treat Brolin and Del Toro as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid type anti-heroes: folks we've been happy to be entertained by watching their criminal adventures who then see the only strand of moral code thus far unbroken tested. That being their personal bond.

And understanding their utter insignificance in the big picture and slavish attitudes toward their empirical vocations, the two stoically agree to become enemies.

And all of that I've no problem with. I don't need morally admirable characters to follow in order to be entertained and invested. I really appreciate in fact the treatment of the US government as just one more gang set against the others in a power struggle. It's just a gangster movie set on an international scale and I'm down for that.

But I was awfully tripped up by Del Toro's character's decision to die on the hill of 'protecting the child of my mortal enemy' when he was plenty happy to slaughter the innocent young children of his enemies just to be cruel in the first film...

Where Sicario didn't scream first in a franchise Day of the Soldado ends in a clear we're not finished with these characters epilogue and... I'd be happy to see more if we can keep any idea of good guys and heroes out of it. I mean, these are sharp-looking war/gangster pictures with good casts and no shortage of real events to challenge the fictional antics of our mercenary characters.

Both films were written by go-to crime/western scribe Taylor Sheridan who's been on a roll with Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) and his directorial effort Wind River (2017) leading up to Day of the Soldado. His films have their detractors, but all have been the cause of invested conversation among crime fans like myself - and those conversations make him as exciting a figure to make a splash this decade.

Jury's still out as far as I'm concerned. I'll not argue that he's talented - even when I'm not in love with his pictures, I'm at least entertained for the run time. With the benefit of hindsight I may one day say he's really amazing, but I don't know. At this point I think he's a pretty solid writer who's had the good fortune to find high-caliber collaborators.

This week on Do Some Damage I suggest you check out the other films made by three very talented directors just prior to them working from Sheridan scripts.

Before 2015's Sicario, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve directed Enemy (2013), an adaptation of José Saramago's novel The Double, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a history professor whose life is derailed by his growing obsession with a movie star who is his exact physical double. Not a crime movie per se, but noir as fuck. And stylish and hellish and nightmarish enough to be memorable for ages. Villeneuve is another talent I'm unsure what to think of. No doubt he's a gifted creator and sustainer of atmosphere and manipulator of audiences, but I'm not entirely sure of his instincts - what will he do with those superpowers he possesses? Regardless, I'm following his career with great interest for now and I have zero qualms about calling Enemy a masterpiece of intriguing (and most importantly, entertaining) what the fuckery. Enemy is available to rent or buy on Amazon.

Hell or High Water was a best picture Oscar nominee in 2016, but Scot film maker David Mackenzie made an even better crime flick in 2013, Starred Up with Jack O'Connell as a juvenile offender prematurely graduated to an adult maximum security facility for his violent unmanageable tendencies. When we meet him we're as scared for him as we are of him and we're further torn up over his predicament and the very real dual possibilities of rehabilitation and permanent institutionalization when we meet his father, a never better Ben Mendelsohn, a lifer with a father's desire to protect his son at immediate and perilous odds with every survival instinct he has. Yes, he may keep the kid alive inside, but he will likely fuck up any chance Junior has of ever leaving prison in the process. Top notch performances make this an intense prison film and a heartbreaking father/son movie to boot. I'm mixed on Mackenzie's output, but he's capable of great work. Starred Up is available to rent on Amazon.

Hollywood has a long tradition of bringing international talents who've made distinct films elsewhere over here to helm heavily studio-controlled franchise flicks and remakes (sometimes of their very own foreign language films). Often the big American machinery takes unique talents and dilutes those voices to the point of irrelevance, but at least Stefano Sollima's first English-language film (Sicario; Day of the Soldado) seems like a good fit for the director whose previous feature film was 2014's Suburra. An adaptation of the novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo de Cataldo it is the story gang warfare in Rome with the Catholic church and Italian government as two more powerful forces invested in the struggle to make that fuckin money. I think it's probably the best gangster movie since Goodfellas - it's beautiful, brutal, bleak, sexy and Sollima weaves a large cast and multi-stranded narrative into a clear and cohesive epic of corruption. Most of Sollima's work is in similar fare for Italian television in Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah most notably. As with Gomorrah, a TV show with an excellent feature film already based on the same book, Suburra now has a TV version and I'd like to stress the superiority of the movie. Please for fuck's sake see the film first. If you want to do the series afterward that's up to you. Hopefully English speaking audiences will get a chance to see Sollima's earlier feature All Cops Are Bastards soon. Suburra is available to stream on Netflix.

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