Denis Villeneuve’s filmography is a painter’s canvas but there is an interminable thread that weaves through the myriad of genre-defining films that he has made so far. Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) were both crime dramas, albeit of significantly different tonalities, whereas Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) re-characterized how science-fiction movies could be told. Enemy (2013), which has become a cult favorite since it’s limited release, took metaphorical screenplay to an unprecedented level as if you were reading pages straight out of Ray Bradbury. Despite the apparent variety in styles, Villeneuve leaves his signature behind through the clash of ideas that define the journeys of his characters. Besides being a gripping crime drama, Prisoners was also about how two men approached the abduction of the girls. Hugh Jackman, the scorned father, is ready to kill all semblance of human morality to get his daughter back while Jake Gyllenhaal’s actions are governed by the diktat of law. Arrival was not just a close encounter of the third kind. It was yet another clash of ideologies – the way in which Amy Adams’ character saw language as compared to how the rest of the characters saw it.
Sicario’s dichotomy lay between the characters of Kate Macer, and the duo of Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick. Macer, played by Emily Blunt, is an officer who has come face to face with the ugly side of crime but follows a strict principle that a law enforcement officer cannot break the law that he/she has sworn to protect. In her world nothing about a crime, however heinous, justifies twisting the long arms of the legal system. Graver (played by Josh Brolin) and Gillick (played by Benicio del Toro), on the contrary, believe that sometimes the law can become a handicap when going after evil. When you have your eyes on the greater good, inevitable sacrifices have to be made, all of them not necessarily under the purview of the law.
“The movie is about America … how America fantasises that it can solve problems beyond its borders, and about the collateral damage that results … and the legality and moral issues around that … It’s a movie that deals with idealism and realism and the tension between both … It takes place on the Mexican border, but it could have just as easily have been set in Afghanistan or the Middle East or various countries in Africa. In North America, we allow ourselves to do things that other countries can’t afford to.” – Villeneuve
Director Stefano Sollima’s Soldado lobotomizes Villeneuve’s dichotomy to focus solely on the perspectives of Graver and Gillick who have been tasked with a new mission by the Secretary of Defense which aims at controlling the burgeoning human-trafficking problem across the US-Mexican border. The covert team led by Graver conducts hits on drug-lord Carlos Reyes’ gang fomenting an atmosphere of inter-cartel wars. To instigate a direct-line of communication with Reyes, Gillick abducts Reyes’ daughter Isabel as leverage. In a parallel storyline, a young Mexican boy named Miguel finds himself drawn into a human-trafficking operation. Miguel’s journey is reminiscent of that of Police Officer Silvio in the previous film, both showing the dark impact of a crime-ridden society on everyday people.
Unlike it’s predecessor, Soldado makes for very materialistic film-making where every scene is a drab crafting of cause and effect. Villeneuve’s personification of an unforgiving, gritty Mexico was a character in itself. In one of the scenes, the city of Ciudad Juarez is compared to a “beast”. Through Emily Blunt’s eyes, you see a lawless city where life is a passing commodity. The ghastly atrocities are burnt into your brain through mutilated bodies that hang from bridges, giving a peek into the mind of the lurking demon that was the cartel. You are made to feel the pervading gloom that Blunt’s character feels. Soldado uses established stereotypes against Mexicans and Muslims to drive motive into the operation. After an opening shot with series of bomb-blasts perpetrated by Muslim terrorists, no connection is drawn to the cartels. If the idea was to show the value of the ‘human’ commodity, the screenplay utterly fails at that, becoming no more than a distraction that breaks the flow.
Some of the best moments in the film centre around del Toro as he escorts Isabel Reyes across the Mexican border. Even though the ultimate plan was to leave Isabel in an area controlled by Reyes rivals so as to perpetuate the idea that they were behind the abduction, Alejandro starts to see his own daughter in the girl who had been killed by the cartel. The characteristic brooding persona of Gillick retains the appeal from the earlier film. After a particularly damaging injury that almost kills him, Gillick is able to find his way back, driven only by his mission of wiping every single one of those criminals from the face of the earth.
Soldado paves the way for a potential sequel where the titular hitman or Sicario, Alejandro, would train his successor as hinted at in the closing scene. Having said that, Villeneuve has also shown interest in returning to the franchise in the next film, however with a completely different storyline and cast. Well, we already know that the man is a master of reboots and we cannot wait !