(On Cable TV, January 2019) There are times when I wish we’d be able to take movies, put them in a time capsule and see them a few years down the line once the real-world context calms down a little. Such is it with Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a solid thriller that has the misfortune of espousing a pessimistic view of the world at a time when real-world American politics were primed to make hay with thriller elements. To put it bluntly: the movie opens with immigrants blowing up an American store, blending al-Qaeda threats with cross-border immigration … and was released shortly before a midterm election where illegal immigration was bandied about as a cheap boogeyman. Excerpts of the film even showed up in misinformation “news” segments. Such a movie can’t win in such a politically charged moment. The basic storytelling device of justifying the worst lapses in morals by the presence of a terrifying enemy is a common one in thrillers—and properly handled, it can even be convincing. But there’s something about the blunt-edged way that Soldado makes its point that is not just graceless, but actively seems to be courting a certain viewership that may not make a difference between a screenwriter’s tool and real-world paranoia. It doesn’t help that Soldado never stops to consider the morality of its actions, as our “protagonists” react to the opening provocation by going to a foreign country in order to set up a false-flag operation, kidnapping a child in order to create a gang war. Soldado is up-to-the-moment in terms of technology (the film has a pleasant mechanical heft to its use of vehicles), but it’s also sadly very much of the time in terms of amorality. It’s this callous eagerness to embrace a lack of morality that’s disturbing to viewers: it seems to bring comfort to those who would like to achieve objectives by all means necessary, and cuts a bit too close to disaster these days. I’m actually bothered by the fact that I’m bothered by this, because in many ways Soldado is a solid but unremarkable thriller. While obviously a step down from the first Sicario (which was merciless but self-aware about it), Soldado has some fantastic action sequences, a great ominous soundtrack, a decent turn by Benicio del Toro and a plot that could have worked well had it included some pushback against its own actions. But it doesn’t. Stefano Sollima’s direction is competent without being stellar, and the same goes for the cinematography, action and other technical aspects of the film. It’s decent enough on its own right, but a disappointment compared to the first one, and a borderline-repellent work in today’s context. I would look forward to a re-appreciation in a decade, especially if the United States somehow regains some kind of effective morality by that time.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) As far as hard unflinching thrillers go, Sicario is a cut above the average. Featuring a merciless look at the increasingly uncivilized war between governments and drug dealers on both sides of the US-Mexico border, this film takes viewers into darkness and doesn’t allow for much light at the end. Our gateway character is a competent police officer drawn into a murky universe in which answers aren’t forthcoming and may be harmful to the soul. Director Denis Villeneuve once again manages a spectacular-looking film: with the help of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario revels in the bleak gorgeousness of the desert and its menacing twilight. The “bridge sequence” is a terrific thrill ride, while the almost-cryptic lines of dialogue do much to suggest an entire universe beyond the words. Emily Blunt is good in the lead role, but Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin end up stealing the show at times. Heavy in macho rhetoric against which crashes our protagonist, Sicario has the heft of a big thriller, the likes of which aren’t seen too often in today’s studio environment. Still, it’s not quite a perfect film: The morbid reality of its vision can weigh heavily at times, but the script appears half-polished in the way it switches protagonists during its third act, doesn’t quite maximize its own strengths and occasionally seems unfinished. I wanted to like it a bit more than I did by the end. Still, Sicario stand tall as one of the big thrillers of 2015, and should be good enough to make adult-minded viewers happy with their evening choice.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre. Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes. Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek. All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away. What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time. Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film. No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.) Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through. Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation. It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film. Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Critics weren’t kind to this remake of the 1941 horror-classic and, up to a certain point, it’s easy to see why: There isn’t much of a story here, nor too many chills. The tone can be inconsistent, and some moments feel more ridiculous than anything else. Additionally, the winks and nods to horror fans sometimes lead the story into small dead-ends (eg; the silver cane). Still, The Wolfman has a lot going for it in the visual department, from an effective gothic atmosphere to Joe Johnston’s often-clever direction. The makeup and special effects are used wisely and the cinematography can be adequately lugubrious at times. While not up to Tim Burton’s standards (You should see The Wolfman in a double-bill with Sleepy Hollow), there is a lot to like in the film’s visual presentation, which is a notch over the usual horror film. Unfortunately, the assets are often undermined by gratuitous gore taking down the film’s moment-to-moment impact from high-art to low-schlock, and there is a sense that the straightforward narrative isn’t up to the setting it inhabits. (Much like Anthony Hopkins seems to be slumming in a one-dimensional role.) Oh well; at least Benicio del Toro and Hugo Weaving can be compelling to watch, and if viewers get bored, there’s usually a nice image every few moments to keep things interesting.