JOURNEY TO THE BADLANDS IN CRIME THRILLER “SICARIO”
A Film Review by Tim Riley
SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (Rated R) Key elements of the second chapter to the drug war breaching our southern border are missing in the sequel to 2015’s “Sicario,” most notably with the absence of Emily Blunt’s idealistic FBI assigned to work the dangerous zone of the badlands boundary with Mexico. Also absent from the crucial position of director is Denis Villeneuve, who plumbed the depths of darkness instead of pure escapism for disturbing realism. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” no less touches on moral ambiguity in high stakes action for a pulse-pounding crime drama.
Taking over the reins held previously by Villeneuve is Italian director Stefano Sollima, whose body of film and television work is built around the often fine line that exists between cops and criminals. Netflix viewers may have seen his crime drama “Suburra.”The new “Sicario” does reteam primary characters, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the mysterious attorney-turned-assassin, with hardnosed CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), to fight the drug cartels turning the border into an express lane through Texas. The story opens with Matt operating in the Middle East to capture a terrorist bent on jihad with planned attacks on American soil, which is soon realized with a gruesome, deadly attack on a Kansas City supermarket leading to more fears about the porous southern border. The drug cartels are no longer just shipping narcotics to the north. They are also engaged in human trafficking, acting as coyotes for not just hopeful immigrants but even Islamic terrorists. The cartels are now classified by the government as terrorists.
To disrupt the all-powerful cartels, largely abetted by the corruption rampant in Mexico, steely-eyed CIA superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) directs Matt to initiate a risky venture to the south to foment violent clashes between rival drug lords. Meanwhile, another story emerges with the recruitment of Texas teenager Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) in the border town of McAllen into smuggling immigrants that soon gets wrapped up in nasty cartel business. An encounter in a parking lot is a tip to a future troubling encounter. The back story for Alejandro is that his wife and daughter had been killed by a cartel, and he is more than eager for any revenge against responsible parties, which is one of the reasons he was an assassin in the first “Sicario” film.
Recruited by Matt for a new mission, Alejandro joins the effort to stage daring attacks on associates of cartel leader Carlos Reyes, first an assassination of the cartel’s lawyer and then a kidnapping of a family member. The plan executes an abduction of Reyes’ teen daughter Isabel (Isabela Moner), who is first seen in a brawl at her school after being insulted with a derogatory slur. This establishes that she’s no pushover who may prove to be a problematic hostage.
The daring ambush on the streets of Mexico City is executed to perfection, leaving behind the unmistakable impression that a rival cartel has started internecine warfare. A wrinkle in the scheme is the aftermath of corrupt police arriving on the scene. Nevertheless, after being transported to a safe house in Texas, the girl is “rescued” in a phony setup with federal agents taking out imaginary bad guys so that she could be returned to Mexico under the fiction of a rival drug gang had done the kidnapping.
Getting the victim returned to her homeland turns into a bigger headache when the transport is ambushed by violent cartel members and corrupt Mexican federal police. Even worse is that Matt is ordered to end the mission by erasing all evidence of American involvement. As a result, the resourceful Alejandro and Isabel end up abandoned in the desert, left to fend with numerous dangers alone. They find temporary sanctuary at the home of a deaf farmer with whom Alejandro can relate because he knows sign language. Having been insubordinate in the past, Matt is undoubtedly conflicted with the moral dilemma of treating an asset like Alejandro, along with the girl, as collateral damage but unfortunately, that’s where things are headed.
The resolution to the quandary of conflicted feelings to bring closure to the mission is complicated. The relationship between Matt and Alejandro is tinged with an odd mixture of hubris and vulnerability. Where things will go seems to be an uncharted course. Benicio Del Toro really shines as the gunman developing a conscience and willing to protect an innocent victim, while Josh Brolin is solid in his character even if it lacks nuance for one facing a moral impasse.
In the final analysis, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is a conventional crime thriller, where violence trumps the legal niceties that agents like Matt are only too willing to bend or ignore so that any rules of engagement don’t hinder the explosive action. The second chapter of “Sicario” ends in a big question mark that is inconclusive as to be somewhat of a letdown as well as signaling yet another installment. Whatever the case, this crime drama still has plenty of thrills for any action junkie.
COME FOR THE THRILLS OF DINOSAURS LOOSE IN “JURASSIC WORLD”
- A Film Review by Tim Riley
JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (Rated PG-13) Three years ago the theme park and luxury resort that was “Jurassic World” on Isla Nublar was destroyed by dinosaurs out of containment. “Jurassic World: the Fallen Kingdom” brings the main players back to the island that now resembles a post-apocalyptic vision. The “Jurassic World” sequel explores the motivations of various players, some for good but others for shady reasons, who return to the abandoned island off the coast of Costa Rica when the dormant volcano threatens to blow everything to bits. Only briefly, Jeff Goldblum returns as Dr. Malcolm, warning Congress that Mother Nature charts her own course and saving prehistoric beasts from extinction may not be wise. The thought of “I told you so” may come to mind later, probably even more so in an inevitable sequel.
Meanwhile, former park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) travels to an isolated forested area where the reclusive raptor-whisperer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is building his own cabin overlooking a scenic vista. Having evolved into an animal-rights activist fixed on the previously extinct variety, Claire is very much aware that the prehistoric creatures need to be relocated to a new sanctuary, for which the details seem to be a little hazy. Once romantically-linked to the Indiana Jones-type explorer, Claire now appeals to Owen’s deep connection to the velociraptor named Blue that he had nurtured from a hatchling and trained to show empathy to match its innate intelligence.
The former partner of the now-deceased John Hammond, the eccentric dying tycoon Benedict Lockwood (James Cromwell), runs his empire out of a creepy, gothic mansion, which has a massive subterranean lab and holding cells being used by corrupt geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong). Lockwood’s precocious 10-year-old granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), lives at the estate under the care of her nanny, Iris (Geraldine Chaplin). She becomes a pivotal character in learning bad things are happening that her incapacitated grandfather would not approve.
The right-hand man in charge of Lockwood’s affairs, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) recruits Claire and Owen to corral the dinosaurs and assorted beasts in an expedition to transport them to a private reserve. Like many others, Mills probably has a scheme up his sleeve. The operation itself requires a lot of resources and manpower, which end up being overseen by ruthless mercenary Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) using trigger-happy goons to fulfill his own secret agenda. Besides Claire and Owen, the only decent folks on the rescue effort are offbeat veterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and hacker Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), a tech nerd nervously uncomfortable with the multiple dangers lurking in the jungle.
Having been lead astray by the malignant desires of Lockwood’s people, the group of four plucky heroes take on the herculean task of trying to thwart the venal Wheatley’s greedy schemes to cash in on a huge payday There’s plenty of great action on the island, from Owen desperately rescuing Claire and Franklin from a gyroscope sinking into the ocean to dodging fast-moving lava to the perils of interactions with the dinosaurs. It’s the formula that has worked before. Added twists come in the form of double-crosses and the revelations of sinister motivations that infect everybody except the intrepid heroes and the smart little girl fending mostly for herself at the Lockwood estate.
Working out of the cavernous basement of the Lockwood gothic mansion, Dr. Wu, the mad scientist, has gone rogue with his unholy tampering with dinosaur DNA to create the genetical monstrosity known as the Indoraptor. This creature is deadly not only because of its size but also due intelligence, speed and ability to follow orders when properly inclined. Dr. Wu has created the perfect weapon and Lockwood’s underground lair is turned into an auction house for nefarious buyers.
The astute moviegoer should know that in a movie like this the best-laid plans of malevolent schemers could easily go awry when the gutsy band of heroes assisted by Maisie throws a wrench into the works. Does this “Jurassic World” have a message? If it does, everyone would pay heed to Dr. Malcolm’s admonitions. The takeaway is that you don’t fool with nature, but even a grade-schooler would likely know that. If not for those on a dangerous undertaking, the lava oozing all over Isla Nublar would have lead to the extinction of a species that died out millions of years ago for a reason. But then you’d have a short film with dinosaurs bursting into flames.
The guilty pleasure of “Jurassic World” is seeing a bunch of bad people getting the poetic, if not brutal and savage, justice of learning the hard way not to mess with altering vicious beasts for their own self-serving exploitation. Despite it all, the draw of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is seeing the dynamic action of beasts rampaging through the island with lava at their backs, posing threats to humans and busting loose from cages in a vicious stampede. In that regard, this could be the payoff.