Mama, these films just killed a man…
OK, this is it. I’ve been working for a fortnight straight and this is the grand old finale of Listmas Season 2018 – at least until I get around to putting together that article(s) on my favourite albums of the year, but when that happens depends on how deeply Spyro Reignited and Gravity Falls get their tendrils into me. Anywho, we’re currently counting down my Bottom 10 Films of 2018, a process we kickstarted yesterday with #10 to #6. Missed that, need a refresher, or just want to bask in the fury once again for funsies? Then click on here to get that fix. Everyone else, we’re nearly there. Every chain has got a weak link.
There will be spoilers throughout. Proceed with caution.
05] Tomb Raider
Dir: Roar Uthaug
Star: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins
Nothing better encapsulates Tomb Raider’s flailing identity crisis in a post-Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune world than the fact that the series’ big tentpole movie reboot – the one which consciously chose to shed the cheesy overly-sexualised James Bond for Archaeology and written by horny teenage boys clothes of the original Core Design games and Angelina Jolie movies in favour of the gritty survivalist Die Hard for archaeology aesthetic of the second Crystal Dynamics reboot – made all these changes, a big show of being a serious action movie, got themselves an Oscar-winning mainstream star in the making and properly jacked her up to give audiences the globe over ab and arm envy, insisted this was a new-look Tomb Raider… only to make all of the exact same mistakes as the Jolie movies, plus some brand new ones, and be actively boring in a way that you could never accuse the cheesecake first go-arounds of being. Roar Uthaug’s miserable, lifeless and paint-by-numbers take on Lara Croft lifts the visual design of the 2013 game, multiple setpieces, and at least lets Vikander look a million bucks as an action star, but otherwise phones in the rest of the production with slapdash recycled storytelling from hundreds of better movies, dirge-like pacing, and the general sensation of “good enough” being tossed around over pretty much every single non-Vikander aspect.
Seriously, every facet of this movie other than the coup of casting Vikander and making sure she has the look of an action heroine has been mailed in via a second-class stamp. A fact which even extends to this new Lara who, in a stunning reversal from the game this incarnation is based on – where she was the only interesting and consistently-written character in the narrative, and even then her arc entirely consisted of getting the shit kicked out of her over and over again until she just becomes Lara Croft – is somehow a less-defined and less-consistent character than her Jolie incarnation despite in many key respects being the exact same character. Both are haunted by their fathers’ disappearance, both undertake archaeological expeditions in search of answers, both spend much of their time in domineering take-no-shit mode, yet Vikander’s Lara somehow feels even less interesting and developed than Jolie’s one. Perhaps that’s because Jolie’s Lara didn’t switch up her characterisation in every scene because the film needs Lara to be this way for the narrative to progress: sometimes Lara is an uber-capable badass, sometimes she gets her ass hopelessly kicked, sometimes she’s incredibly street-smart in order to allow an exciting(?) crosstown-BMX chase to occur in the interminably long prologue, sometimes she’s dumb enough to wander into Hong Kong without learning a word of Cantonese because a parkour chase needs to happen, sometimes she doesn’t care about her family name or fortune, sometimes she cares deeply and broodingly because the film won’t start otherwise.
Perhaps it’s also because Jolie’s movie didn’t make the mistake of revealing her father to be alive halfway through and then have him and the male villain hijack the narrative for the vast majority of the second and third acts until it’s time for the finale. Despite taking the visual design of the second game reboot, screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons ditch almost everything interesting about that game’s narrative which was informed by the visual designs and iconography – Lara taking the Yamatai expedition is an act of hubris that comes from a desire to prove herself which is what leads to everyone getting shipwrecked on the island and dying horribly, plus the fact that the beating heart of the story is based around Lara’s friendship with fellow rookie archaeologist and perpetual damsel Sam – in favour of Stock Action-Adventure Movie Narrative #421, Girl Variant. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a generic bog-standard action movie all about destiny and proving oneself with all the usual clichés and signifiers, but this time there is a woman in the protagonist role… who is also the only significant woman in the entire film and, because she’s the only significant woman in the entire film, she’s motivated primarily by a heaping portion of Daddy Issues. Hollywood’s been doing this version of the story for a decade, hell it was their exact strategy the last time they tried to launch a Tomb Raider movie, and the only things that separates this go-around are the flavour of the week visual and structural signifiers: no Bullet Time, no electronic rap-rock, better-integrated CGI, superfluous Asian characters designed to pander to the Chinese market, time wasted setting up a franchise of theoretically more exciting future instalments, a glumly self-serious tone, and The Dark Knight still.
Look, the 2013 reboot game did not exactly make the best use of the potential in its new visual hook and re-envisioned Lara, but that’s no excuse to chuck the substance out in favour of something completely different and at odds with the visual design. Tomb Raider 2018 then imports over the problems with the Jolie films – thin characterisation, testosterone poisoning of its cast, Daddy Issues, generic plotting and mediocre action scenes – pairs them with problems culled straight from the aesthetics of the 2013 game it otherwise doesn’t care about – setpieces and foreshadowing that now have no reason for being here, like the cargo plane waterfall, and fixating on Lara’s first kill being a traumatic and horrifying experience only to have her power-jogging through the jungle slaughtering faceless goons with nary a quiver of the lip minutes later – and invents additional problems of its own – like a bewilderingly lengthy prologue before we get anywhere near the Endurance and too much time wasted on presumptuously laying sequel foundations. Worst of all, it is so fucking dull, dragging on for two hours without a single memorable setpiece, a single interesting plot turn, a single developed character, or an iota of passion or fun. I’ve had girl friends of mine tell me how they mildly enjoyed the film as a mindless generic action romp like a guy’s but this time there’s a woman in the lead which is fair, as Uthaug does avoid any sexualisation or male-pandering skeeviness from the Jolie films, yet that fact doesn’t raise Tomb Raider in my estimations either. Again, Hollywood’s been doing this for a full decade, nobody’s getting gold stars just because it now stars The Female Gaming Icon.
Maybe what I want the Tomb Raider franchise to be and what Tomb Raider wants to be are just too at odds with each other by this point. I’ve been slowly working through Crystal Dynamics’ first attempt at rebooting the series with the Legend trilogy this year, and I can see the seeds of what Lara Croft could be within those games. The ones that are fun escapism without being leery teenaged masturbatory fantasies, which have interesting and slightly-better defined characters without relying on Daddy Issues as the sole motivator, where there are more than one prominent female character and they all drive the plot together instead of being crowded out by the same boring men featured in the typical-male telling of this story… I know I’m being extremely hard on Tomb Raider 2018, it’s arguably the best and most watchable film on this entire list (unless A Star is Born’s ending fails to get your goat like it does mine), and it’s not my place to say what would make a Tomb Raider movie feminist or debate her bonafides or anything like that. But… shouldn’t we ask for better? Shouldn’t we ask for more? More than a Redbox level diversion that’s decent just-before-bed viewing and aspires no higher than that? Shouldn’t a Lara Croft movie try as hard as its actress, cos God bless Vikander for she is moving mountains in an attempt to make this shit work?
I dunno. All I can tell you is I came out of that cinema frothing with rage, especially at that awful mid-credits tag, over such a wasted opportunity and that I am still bitterly disappointed 10 months on. My girl friend I saw it with, meanwhile, thought it was fine but hasn’t mentioned it since.
04] Holmes & Watson
Dir: Etan Cohen
Star: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Kelly Macdonald
There are many ways I could save myself a lot of time and stress when it comes to Listmas Season. One of the most obvious would be not deciding to structure the series as 11 daily 2,500 word (minimum) articles filled with several normal article-length essays that take at least four hours of constantly interrupted work a piece to write. But another easy fix would be to start writing when November tips over into December rather waiting until the very end of the year to put everything together. After all, that’s the modus operandi of many professional pop culture websites who start posting lists and retrospectives within days of the month starting because a) it lets their writers take the holiday season off to spend time with their families or some relaxing shit rather than work through it all, and b) readers are practically salivating for those lists by mid-December so they can spend the very end of (a likely miserable) year looking forward to the potential of a new year which actually makes my approach rather jonnie-come-lately when looked at that way.
But the year is not over until the year is definitely out of the door and bothering somebody else’s doorstep. If we should have learned anything from the 2010s by this point, it’s that the year will not exit without leaving one last turd on the living room carpet to remember it by like a petulant cat, especially around the Boxing Day release window. 2016 had Why Him? and the premature passing of Carrie Fisher, 2017 inflicted Bright upon an only partly-deserving world, and 2018 followed in such ignoble footsteps by reuniting Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly for Holmes & Watson, incontrovertible proof, if any more were needed, that Etan Cohen should be banned from making or writing movies. In a year that, at least on the American side of things, saw feature-length comedy rediscovering its sense of wit and effort – in films like Game Night, Blockers, and Tag – after a near-decade of scraping the bottom of the barrel, along comes a film in the twilight hours so lacking in either of those things that multiple shots completely unintentionally block speaking characters, several more aren’t lit properly, and even more than those are out of focus.
That’s just the filmmaking failing to meet even the abysmally low standards of this decade’s average comedy, so imagine how bad the screenplay is. Opening with a Victorian rewriting of a quote from Hannah Montana about a decade after such a gag might have been even slightly funny is a grim omen of the 90 minutes to come, as Ferrell and Reilly take turns drowning in flop-sweat and shrieking at the top of their lungs in English accents shakier than Sam Worthington’s attempt at an American accent, trying to will a gag out of a screenplay seemingly held in cold storage from 1901. You know that Sherlock Holmes is an investigative genius but what Holmes & Watson presupposes is maybe he’s also socially inept and undervalues his loyal assistant John Watson? A comic premise so abundant in resources and untapped for potential that the last time it formed the basis of a Sherlock adaptation was 8 months earlier when its plot outline was used almost wholesale by Sherlock Gnomes. Have you ever noticed that Sherlock and Watson are partners in both senses of the term and that’s inherently hilarious because GAY?! Isn’t it always funny to witness modern technological and social lifestyles like drunk texting, selfie sticks, and dickpics being replicated in ye olden times because, “lol they didn’t have dickpics in the Victorian era!” Or how a woman having a healthy and active sex life is shameful and disgusting, so misogynistically shaming her for minutes at a time is deserved and hilarious? Do you find ham-fisted and outdated references to DONALD TRUMP BEING PRESIDENT HYSTERICAL?!
On and on and on Holmes & Watson goes, betraying its turn-of-the-decade origins by basing the most specific gags in parodying Guy Ritchie’s already-forgotten movies, never once landing on an inspired gag or original avenue to take its obscenely overqualified cast down. Instead it asks everyone, from Rebecca Hall as an American doctor to Ralph Fiennes as Moriarty to Rob Brydon as Lestrade to Hugh Laurie as Mycroft – DO YOU GET IT COS DR. HOUSE WAS BASICALLY SHERLOCK HOLMES – to a randomly cameoing Billy Zane because the climax takes place on the Titanic and this kind of half-joke was definitely funny when Seth MacFarlane did it in A Million Ways to Die in the West, to debase themselves in material that has no inclination to put in the effort required to reach the pantheon of smart-dumb comedies prior Ferrell/Reilly collabs have hit. Lauren Lapkus plays a mute woman raised by feral cats who ends up as Sherlock’s love interest. That’s a loopy starting point that could be a load of fun, but Cohen does absolutely nothing with it because he feels it’s far more amusing and expedient to have Will Ferrell try on a bunch of different hats and call it a day. After all, making use of one’s potential comic set-up or talented cast might require work and Etan Cohen evidently breaks out in hives at such a concept. Did you guys know that Kelly Macdonald is SCOTTISH?! Incidentally, that’s another gag which an animated kids’ film did better months before, this time from Ralph Breaks the Internet and it’s quite telling when all your big gags have been done before and better by mediocre animated movies primarily made for children.
There’s a gag at a morgue which goes on forever involving Sherlock finding dead bodies so repellent that he can’t stop himself from vomiting at the sight of even an errant finger. For a good minute, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly take turns pantomiming vomiting into a bucket, dry-heaving into said bucket, and talking about how they are totally not going to vomiting into a bucket. Rarely does a film provide such an encapsulating image of both itself and the year as a whole. I didn’t smirk once. Thank you, next.
03] Bohemian Rhapsody
Dirs: Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher (uncredited)
Star: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Allen Leech
Seeing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that Walk Hard is one of the funniest comedies of the 2000s, a pitch-perfect parody of the Awards Bait biopic genre, particularly the music biopic and specifically of Walk the Line and Ray which were both riding high in the mid-00s, with John C. Reilly’s best ever performance, genuinely great songs, all-time classic gags that I still quote on a regular basis (“DON’T YOU DARE WRITE A SONG RIGHT NOW, DEWEY!”), and a precise balance between Zucker-Abrams-Zucker style absurdity and more specific insider baseball knives taken to your typical Great Man biopic. I cannot recommend you watch Walk Hard enough, especially the American Cox cut which is needlessly two hours long in a joke that’s funnier the more I think about it. But it’s also a curse because after viewing Walk Hard you will be incapable of taking a boilerplate Awards Season biopic seriously ever again; it’s like The Wizard of Oz’s curtain has been torn down so you can see the meek ineffectual guy pulling the strings and activating the smoke and mirrors that power the illusion. And you definitely won’t be able to take Bohemian Rhapsody seriously because it is Walk Hard without any of the jokes.
The cold open flashforward set seconds before the protagonist steps on stage for the biggest gig of their life, setting up the structure as if “Freddie Mercury’s gotta think about his entire life before he goes on stage.” The cartoonishly overdone central performance that’s blatantly screaming for an Oscar nomination – here delivered by Rami Malek who is truly awful with his overblown English accent and saddled with dollar-store prosthetic teeth, he gives a performance more befitting the lead in one of Flip McVicker’s (his character from BoJack Horseman) pretentious Peak TV dramas. The extremely supportive mother and the disapproving father who constantly expresses disappointment in his son until the very end of the film. The neglected wife character who will nonetheless stand by her man through thick and thin. The blunt expository dialogue filled with EXTREMELY SUBTLE in-jokes to the audience about future band hits. Montages involving studio experimentation cutting songs together that is almost on the verge of having Freddie shout out “I want an army of didgeridoos, FIFTY THOUSAND DIDGERIDOOS!” The Dark Fuckin’ Period. The lifeless and cheap lipsynced performance sequences. The too-clever-by-half bows it ties on different narrative strands. The fact that it’s over two hours for no discernible reason…
How are we still making movies like this? More importantly, why are we still making movies like this? Does everybody not know how insufferably smug this kind of biopic comes off as, especially when it’s been shepherded to the screen by still-living members of the story exercising more in brand maintenance than accomplished or even satisfying filmmaking? Like, the palpable contempt that comes with beats like Freddie playing the initial piano melody for the title track in his bedroom years before the song is finished, or having Mike Myers cameo as a record executive turning down “Bohemian” as a lead single, or having Brian May loudly announce off-screen “we need to get experimental” before recording motherfucking “We Will Rock You.” How these are not cute but, rather, smug flexes that, in many instances, betray a still-lingering bitterness over being critical paddlers for the vast majority of Queen’s active career? Or how about just how shamelessly Bohemian Rhapsody messes up the timeline of events to such a blatant absurd degree that even minor Queen fans would know that “Fat Bottom Girls” wasn’t from Sheer Heart Attack or that Freddie’s AIDS wasn’t diagnosed until years after Live Aid or that Queen never actually broke up prior to Live Aid (like The Works didn’t exist). Bohemian Rhapsody has such a tenuous relationship to actual evidenced recorded history that I’m genuinely offended this alleged biopic has the nerve to bill itself as “Based on a True Story.”
And then we get to Freddie’s bisexuality or, rather, his homosexuality, as the film erroneously but definitively states, which as depicted in Bohemian Rhapsody was the fatal character flaw that doomed Freddie to an early grave and tore the band apart. Regardless of whether it was intended or just an accident caused by bad screenwriting – and it’s worth noting that the screenplay, credited to Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour’s Anthony McCarten which is a pretty damning track record, is extremely bad – that’s how Bohemian ends up dramatizing Freddie’s bisexuality. The rest of Queen are an ever-present joshing group of perfectly reasonable lads who only occasionally argue about John Deacon’s songwriting (presumably cos Deacon hung it up a few years back), whilst Mercury is a preening, naïve, and egocentric Difficult Man who imposed his will upon the band and whose lure towards drugs, drink, and butt-sex was both the moment where everything went to hell (in a bewildering gay bar montage set to “Another One Bites the Dust” because this movie is an affront to decency) and entirely the fault of the eeeeevillll Catholic gay Paul Prenter. Once Prenter seduces Mercury to the temptations of having sex with men, he sinks into The Dark Fuckin’ Period and doesn’t get snapped out of it until good ol’ hetero Mary straight-splains the situation to him because actively sexual gay men are trickster devils that will ruin you.
(If you’re wondering where Jim Hutton is, he’s The Good Gay who appears once during one of Freddie’s orgy parties to gay-splain the situation, which falls on deaf ears, then reappears once Freddie sobers up at the very end for some chaste handholding like a Good Gay.)
Last year, Edgar Wright managed to make listening to Queen feel awesome again for the first time in years with the prominent usage of “Brighton Rock” in the finale of Baby Driver. That spark, that vitality, that shamelessly camp and fun kick in the pants Queen used to stand for, it made my prior love and appreciation for Queen grow even bigger. After watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I hated their motherfucking guts. Awful contemptuous smug brand management for the surviving members who are still touring today, and nothing more. Tickets start at £100.
02] Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Dir: David Yates
Star: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Johnny Depp
The ending of Fantastic Beasts 2 is the exact same ending as that of The Matrix Reloaded. Reloaded ends with an interminably long sequence of two characters having a philosophy debate about the nature of free will and programming and human nature and etc. in the same never-changing room and without ever picking up in intensity from a particularly uneventful university seminar, followed by a very brief CGI heavy action sequence with no greater repercussions designed to rouse audience members who nodded off from their slumber, our characters scattering somewhat to the wind, and finally a limp cliffhanger that meant diddly-squat to the big picture of Revolutions. The Crimes of Grindelwald ends with almost 30 fucking minutes of characters yelling conflicting exposition back and forth at one another about a boring non-entity (played by a boring non-entity) whilst nothing is actually accomplished, a very brief interruption for a racist police brutality metaphor that’s actually about how punching Nazis is bad, then an even briefer CGI heavy action sequence with no greater repercussions designed to rouse audience members who nodded off from their slumber, our characters scattering to the wind, and finally a limp cliffhanger that has to mean diddly-squat to the big picture of the Harry Potter universe because if it did then we would have heard a certain character mention it by now.
As I earnestly pondered back when I stuck the first Fantastic Beasts on my Bottom 10 Films of 2016 list: who are these movies actually for? The mainstreaming of so-called nerd culture has become the driving force of blockbuster filmmaking in the last decade, with the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series (plus the Sam Raimi Spider-Man) lighting the way for adaptations of geek, fantasy and comic book properties which didn’t need to have their idiosyncrasies and weirder edges sanded down in order to appeal to casual moviegoers – the most financially-successful film of 2018 was entry #19 in a decade-long franchise and was likely impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t seen at least half of the previous entries beforehand. Meanwhile, film discussion, driven by the rise of the enthusiast press and the fan-based democratisation of video platforms like YouTube, became almost entirely reliant on conversation and speculation about geek properties above all else, which in turn provided a slightly more mainstream platform for analysis and theory videos about the minutia or fantasy booking of those franchises – you can also blame J.J. Abrams’ various works for this, but my multi-part rant on how he’s ruined everything for everyone will have to wait for another day. Despite those facts and the loudness of the conversations in the online geeksphere, however, most ordinary people don’t actually give a fuck about geek minutia. They just want to see good and exciting movies.
But giant mega movie studios responsible for pop culture phenomena can sometimes forget that fact and so greenlight films like Fantastic Beasts and Solo: A Star Wars Story, movies that are nothing but pointless fan-wiki minutia footnotes of little interest to anyone but the obsessively-devoted (who will likely get extremely upset with whatever the results turn out to be) yet walk around in the skin of seismic tentpole blockbusters regardless. But Infinity War and Solo didn’t make the list because they at least have enough spectacle and base thrills to work on those who don’t give a shit where Han Solo’s fuzzy dice came from or whatever. Grindelwald, by contrast, has no spectacle, almost no setpieces period (let alone exciting ones), no more likeable characters (since J. K. Rowling goes to great pains in order to ruin the only two decent parts of the first film, Queenie and Jacob) and certainly no interesting ones, and drags on at a perpetual simmer for 134 minutes before booting audiences out of the cinema with a “see you again in two years, suckers!” So, it’s not for casual fans or the non-converted which is, theoretically, perfectly acceptable for the tenth film in a mega-successful franchise that still has a ravenous fandom (never mind the fact that Fantastic Beasts is meant to be an entirely new prequel series and therefore should start from square one). But I don’t know what Wizarding World fans could possibly walk away from Grindelwald in any way satisfied since I’m not interested in Harry Potter lore yet still found myself arguing with the film over blatant retcons that are nonsensical, don’t add anything to this film, and cause paradoxes in other parts of the timeline!
So, Grindelwald doesn’t work as a mainstream blockbuster because it’s dull as fuck and too fixated on franchise management to give casual audiences reason to care. It doesn’t work as a fans-only lore-dump because its new reveals range from the pointless (Nagini being a person cursed to turn into a giant snake) to the utterly absurd (McGonagall being alive in 1927… oh and Creedence being a Dumbledore maybe). It certainly doesn’t work as a timely socio-political commentary like Rowling has been trying to retroactively transform her specifically English escapist fantasy based on upper-class values and a romanticisation of Conservative British staples and iconography like exclusive boarding schools – which, for the record, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing – into, despite her every effort showcasing a blindly privileged and out-of-touch upper-class woman who hasn’t stepped outside her bubble in years. Blindly mish-mashing fascist ideology, authoritarian government regimes, antifa efforts and Neo-Nazi rallies together in order to make the point that there are very fine and misguided people on both sides; diversifying the cast but only to make them background objects to the trials of White characters (Yusuf), tragic figures whom only miserable things happen to (Leta), or both (Nagini); more fucking queerbaiting, now baked firmly into the main conflict but never openly remarked upon because everyone involved with this franchise is a goddamn coward. And Grindelwald barely works as a film because David Yates is the hackiest hack somehow still employed by a major studio and Rowling’s style of writing quite simply does not work in the medium of film.
So, I ask you again: who is Fantastic Beasts actually being made for? In fact, let me expand the query a little wider: who is J. K. Rowling making Harry Potter/Wizarding World/Pottermore/Whatever the Fuck We’re Calling This Franchise for anymore? 18 hours before posting, in one of those beautiful instances where life gift-wraps budding writers such as myself the perfect kicker to an argument, Rowling’s Pottermore canonically revealed that in the centuries before Hogwarts adopted plumbing “witches and wizards simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence.” This is what Harry Potter has come to in 2019.
01] Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Dir: Stefano Sollima
Star: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
The ending of Sicario was not the one scripted. Director Denis Villeneuve and stars Emily Blunt & Benicio del Toro “weren’t satisfied” with the one writer Taylor Sheridan scripted, feeling it went against the characters of FBI Agent Kate Macer and hitman Alejandro, so came up with the new ending after two hours of conversation with one another. In the filmed ending: Alejandro coldly murders the family of Fausto Alarcón in front of him as they eat dinner before also killing Alarcón, then breaks into Kate’s apartment and forces her to sign the legality waivers at gunpoint, with Kate aiming her gun at Alejandro as he leaves but being unable to bring herself to pull the trigger and surrender that last part of her soul. In the scripted ending: Alejandro doesn’t kill Alarcón’s family but instead kills Alarcón and gives the family money to leave Mexico City and start over as non-drug barons, then he breaks into Kate’s apartment and physically humiliates her into submission by stripping her naked and pointing to the bruises he gave her as reason why she should not push this any further before leaving.
This is a fact which has been at the forefront of my mind ever since word got out that Lionsgate had commissioned a sequel to Sicario, in spite of the fact that Sicario was absolutely not intended for any continuation as almost anybody who watched that movie could have told them. Sicario was a bleak, deliberately-paced, unflinching, grim-as-fuck and borderline-nihilistic examination of America’s drug war. A scathing condemnation of the country’s ill-thought-out, heavy-handed, and actively chaotic race war disguised as a moral crusade and how they have (and continue to) fucked the otherwise noble efforts to bring down the cartels by plunging the region into a perpetual state of warfare from which trying to retain one’s sense of morality is nigh-impossible since the game is rigged from the start, especially so if you’re a woman (casting Emily Blunt as the protagonist allowing the film to make a painful-to-watch statement on institutional sexism in law and government enforcement). It was extremely serious but it earnt that seriousness thanks to Villeneuve’s pulsating direction and oppressive atmosphere, incredible performances, and a complex and studiously-argued screenplay by Sheridan.
“Except was it, though?” That’s been my thought with regards to Sheridan’s screenplay ever since I first discovered the ending rewrite because it’s thrown a lot of subsequent events into sharper relief. Sicario’s filmed ending, after all, ties a perfect bow on the rest of the film: painting Alejandro as a monster, allowing Kate to make a choice of her own for the first time since her initial decision to link up with Matt Graver and, more than that, reject the imperial American masculinity inherent in their actions across the narrative (and beforehand) to walk away with her humanity intact, whilst the rest of Mexico descends once more into a cartel warzone because the drug war relies on that cyclical disorder and violence to propagate itself. Sheridan’s scripted ending still has that gutting tag, but the other changes fundamentally rewrite Alejandro into a reasonable anti-hero who can find a measure of redemption for his actions and mansplains situations to Kate, whilst the messaging instead leans more towards “American’s foreign policy in this situation may be morally dubious but doing the same thing with a scalpel could minimise the bleeding going forward.”
Then you add on Sheridan’s work in his directorial debut, Wind River, which had Elizabeth Olsen as a naïve outsider FBI Agent who similarly had the shit kicked out of her and her agency taken away at every turn but didn’t actually build to any point like with Kate Macer. That was just how Sheridan wrote female characters. And then you add onto that the fact that Sheridan was coming back to Sicario to pen the sequel, which was going to centre around Alejandro and Matt despite them both being the villains of the original film… I began to worry that I’ve been seeing something in Sicario that wasn’t actually there or, at least, was only there because of the minor-yet-significant tweaks made by other creative heads throughout the production rather than Sheridan’s own intentions. But, despite this apprehension and my unshakeable belief that Sicario didn’t need a sequel, I remained somewhat curious about Soldado. Sheridan and new director Stefano Sollimo (of All Cops Are Bastards) were going to jettison the complex moral critique of the original Sicario. They had to, you couldn’t tread that ground again for there would have been no fresh ground to tread, and I had accepted that fact. But a part of me hoped that Sheridan had something hidden up his sleeve, some bold new angle that would surprise me, be faithful to the message of the first film, and elevate Soldado beyond cheap franchise bait. Or, at least, if it was going to pull a Rambo sequel on me, that it would go full Rambo III to such a degree that I could safely split it from the original Sicario in my mind and look at it as its own beast.
Horrifyingly, I got the worst of both worlds. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a mindless Hollywood celebration of American insurgency that cold executes any of the nuance and intelligence about the drug war displayed throughout Sicario in favour of testosterone-poisoning, sympathy for the monsters because they’re on our side being screwed over by a wishy-washy government, and dog-whistling in the direction of an audience a not-good version of Sicario would have courted with open arms. Whilst Villeneuve’s masterwork saw the militarisation of the police and the American government’s complicity with deniable black ops groups in order to sow intentional destruction and chaos in a neighbouring nation as unsettling examples of hubris and tyranny, Sollima’s sequel sees them as cool-ass action movie fodder. Villeneuve saw the horror in a military-style convoy rolling across the Mexican border like it was the Middle East; Sollima sees it as worthy of awesome panoramic sweeps and several instances where their sudden appearances work as fist-pumping cavalry moments. Villeneuve cut away from Matt and Alejandro’s extra-judicial torture of a cartel associate and left only the guy’s screams to chill our bones to their core; Sollima opens Soldado by showing Matt’s torture of a random lead who provides no useful intel (including drone-striking the guy’s family whilst he watches) because that’s cool, I guess(?)
Soldado turns Alejandro and Matt into noble antiheroes, of course. How could it not have? Without an outsider present to provide an ineffectual moral centre, like Kate did, or a deft enough directorial hand to keep the film’s morality separate from Matt and Alejandro’s, like Villeneuve was able to, it’s near-impossible not to get the sensation that Sheridan wants to sympathise with the monsters he’s created. And that’s all before he throws in hypocritical indecisive governmental policies which screw them over and dehumanise them at every turn, drops in several big Hollywood action scenes of the pair trying to protect the young daughter of a drug baron who teases out the long-considered dead humanity of Alejandro, and doubles down on the demonization of Mexicans he’d otherwise skilfully side-stepped in the original – although I know that one’s a more contentious topic I’m happy to discuss with folks more intelligent than I when pressed. Even if Matt does only save Isabel out of spite for his government employers, it’s still meant to be seen as a humanising moment for the man who otherwise treats human life with the same casual disregard he does chewing gum. But, again, I saw all of this coming and I made peace with it. Even the dumbass crossing of the two plot strands at a critical point, a structure nicked from the original film and here deployed with the grace of a car that’s on-fire skidding into a petrol station, I was willing to accept and evaluate the film on its own terms because Soldado had to fundamentally be the polar opposite of Sicario.
Except that Soldado has still been shot, directed, and paced like the first Sicario despite being the total antithesis of Sicario. It’s still a bleak, deliberately-paced, unflinching, grim-as-fuck and extremely serious movie despite having absolutely nothing going on in its head to justify such a delivery. It wants to be compared to the original, to be seen as a direct continuation of the same themes and philosophies of Sicario despite, again, being the complete antithesis of them. So, you really do get the worst of both worlds: a point-missing wrong-headed fearmongering piece of mindless rah-rah action guff, dressed up like it’s some deeply intelligent and adult thriller with Things to Say and so committed to that get-up it only looks incredibly immature and refuses to be thrilling or guiltily-fun – not aided in the slightest by Stefano Sollima most definitively not being anywhere near the same plane as Denis Villeneuve. It’s a smart thriller which is as dumb as a Brexiteer. It’s a mindless action movie that’s too uptight to find any pleasure in. It’s a boring slog. It has no purpose yet is too preoccupied with acting like it does to even attempt tapping into baser thrills.
On its own, Day of the Soldado is a dreary waste of time. As a sequel to Sicario, it is an indefensible act of war against the spirit of its forebearer which has perhaps permanently shaken my faith in Taylor Sheridan and, worst of all, the 2015 original. I have held the unshakeable belief, ever since first witnessing it in late September of 2015, that Sicario is a modern-day classic. A bolt out of the blue, a thriller of blood-pumping tension and intelligence, the rare miserablist drama in today’s landscape that earns its self-seriousness because of its nuance and commitment, the film that immediately vaulted its director from really talented to the best alive today, and that unique movie which hits me like the first time every time I watch it in addition to revealing new layers with each rewatch… and now, three years later, I have undeniable evidence that it was a fluke. That Sheridan got lucky, that he doesn’t understand the story he’s telling and had to be guided into place by those who did, those who (with the exception of del Toro) jumped ship for Soldado and left him flailing. That maybe I was projecting onto Sicario. So, now I’m scared to go back. What if it’s like when I rewatched Alien after viewing Alien: Covenant and found that previously unfuckwithable classic had been brought down a few notches thanks to Ridley Scott’s abominable fucking up of the 2017 prequel? Maybe Sicario can withstand that sort of damage, but Soldado has put the fear in my head and you can’t shake off fear like that.
Bottom Film of the Year. Worst Film of the Year. Whatever you want to call it. That’s why I can’t forgive Sicario: Day of the Soldado. That’s why it is #1. Producer Trent Luckinbill has threatened a third instalment being in development. The execution of Soldado didn’t take. Much like Alejandro, the Sicario franchise is going to crawl out of the dirt, bleeding profusely from its headshot, get in the car and drive on forward to wreak vengeance anew. God. Fucking. Dammit.
Callum Petch don’t wanna end up like no nine-day wonder.