Spoilers Ahead for Sicario and Sicario 2: Soldado!
Benicio Del Toro played a ruthless assassin in the first Sicario film, one who served whomever pointed him at his enemies in the cartels plaguing South America, specifically Mexico.
Yes, played. Okay, he still plays the character (Alejandro Gillick), and he’s still far from friendly, yet “ruthless” describes his modus operandi less now than before.
In Sicario, Alejandro had boundaries and sympathies; he was no pure monster through and through. He was a man with a certain vendetta he would assuage with extreme violence, and a further willingness to rationalize dreadful actions for the sake of destabilizing the cartel hegemony. In other words, he was a dynamic character with realistic motivations, and the men he goes about killing are hardly deserving of our remorse.
But Alejandro crossed a line in the first movie. He murdered the wife and children of Alarcón, the leader of the Sonora cartel.
It was not so simple as vengeance, but it motivated him to finish his job. Necessarily, he had to wipe out the whole family to knock out the Sonora cartel leadership once and for all. He had to bring an end to their presence. It would save lives in the long run by preventing further conflict between cartels. That was not what drove him to pull the trigger. He intentionally killed Alarcón’s wife and children in front of him, delaying the killing of his actual target by the longest few seconds in the movie. He wanted the man who killed his children to feel the similar horror he did before finally finishing him off.
Alejandro has his reasons, and he still has a capacity for good within him, but he is fundamentally tainted by his sins, and likely can never be fully redeemed.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) contemplates killing Alejandro for all the things he did, but cannot bring herself to do it. For all her flaws, Kate is not a monster, while Alejandro represents something close to one. The juxtaposition is poignant here.
Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is similarly twisted. He is the operational lead, meaning he was committing plenty of crimes in the pursuit of his mission goals. He knew the kind of damage Alejandro would do if he was let loose, and did so with a degree of encouragement; he wanted the Alarcon family killed. It was convenient to his objectives. He gave Alejandro help in the murder of the family via drone surveillance.
Matt was fine with the loss of life the Mexicans faced in consequence of his destabilizing operations. While he had an understandable goal of preventing violence in the future by starting some in the short-term, he no less got people killed through his influence alone (along with some well-placed bullets).
Sicario was all about moral ambiguity, with a mix of absolute rights and wrongs creating a dark, uncertain view of the war on drugs and how America struggles to keep criminality across its borders down. The viewer is left feeling like Kate by the end: distraught, self-doubting, and painfully wiser.
Sicario 2: Soldado does not stray from moral ambiguity either. Alejandro murders several people on the street, helps kidnap a girl to destabilize cartels again in a False Flag operation, this time because they allegedly helped smuggle suicide-bombers into the US that executed a high-profile attack in a grocery store. Matt makes the mission, and Alejandro helps in much of the execution.
This time however, it’s hard to call the men involved as monstrous or ruthless as before. They are certainly doing illegal things in foreign countries, but we’re left thinking those people were deserving of it given the murderous organization they’re a part of. The little girl, Isabela Reyes, is used to make one cartel start a war with another, thinking their opposition was behind the kidnapping. That is likely the worst sin of the characters in the film.
Throughout the kidnapping and holding of Isabela, Alejandro is caring toward her in his detached sort of way. He then makes a point of protecting her when he separated from Matt and his team in Mexico. Matt’s team, while trying to bring Isabela back home and finalize the False Flag Op by placing her the territory of her family’s enemies, is ambushed by their Mexican Federal Police escort. As Isabela slipped away in the chaos, Alejandro tracks her down and takes her to safety.
So, as Alejandro is becoming more of a “goodish guy”, Matt has his own chance at showing a softer side. Matt is told that Alejandro and Isabela are loose-ends from the ambush, and the optics of US Delta Forces engaging Mexicans are patently disastrous (even if the Mexican cops started it and were corrupt). He has to kill them both to cover up what happened. Matt is in deep conflict over this development. So, he warns Alejandro that his boss wants him to “cut ties”, and that Alejandro had to get rid of Isabela so he might find a way to spare him. Alejandro refuses.
Matt begrudgingly hunts his comrade and Isabela to preserve his operation. Alejandro attempts an incredibly dangerous move to cross the border into the US, where Matt nor anyone else could harm him and Isabela. He does this out of sheer compassion for the girl, and is executed for it by cartel members who recognize him…only he survives. Still, he is shown to give everything for Isabela, which is quite the dramatic shift from Alejandro’s character in the first film.
Matt, thinking Alejandro died at the execution, moves his team to secure Isabela. His demeanor shifts even more, seemingly fed up with his own operation and disheartened by the loss of his friend. His team kills all the cartel members present, having an opportunity to kill the girl then and there. Instead, he defies orders and brings Isabela to safety across the northern border, certainly condemning his future with the US government.
Matt and Alejandro, two men who were willing to do terrible things for different reasons, are coming out of Sicario 2 as worthy of our reconsideration. Yes, they still occupy a dark area of a moral spectrum, but the grim and heartless actions of Sicario might be in the past. The ending of Sicario 2 leaves the potential for a third film. Perhaps true redemption awaits these men then?
It is hard to excuse what they have done. Could they, in the very least, put an end to the dirty business they are involved in?