Soldado review: far better than could have been expected

Denis Villeneuve’s tense-as-hell thriller was one of the nicest surprises of 2015, pitting newbie Fed Emily Blunt against the Mexican drug cartels like a kickass Clarice Starling. Neither Villeneuve, Blunt or sidekick Daniel Kaluuya return for Stefano Sollima’s solid sequel, but writer Taylor Sheridan, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are back, the three stealth stars of the original.

Of course, Mexico is even more of a hot-button topic now, thanks to President Fuckface, Child-Catcher in Chief. So it seems especially incendiary that Brolin and Del Toro’s mission this time is a blacker-than-black ops kidnapping of a drug dealer’s daughter (Isabella Moner) from across the border. At one point Brolin’s jaded CIA agent calls the POTUS a coward who’s only worried about ratings. “He’s not worried about ratings,” says head honcho Catherine Keener, “he’s worried about being impeached.” Yeeouch.

Otherwise, it’s business as usual, as the film flits from Mexico to Kansas to Djibouti and back again, before settling down into a familiar mix of brooding brinkmanship, shouty interrogations and shooty ambushes – the pick of which are the kidnapping itself and an all-guns blazing desert assault.

Blessed with smart writing, strong central performances and a rich seam of nihilism, it’s far better than could have been expected. But without Blunt and Kaluuya’s (relative) innocents, there’s no contrast, no light to the darkness, and Sollima’s direction only ever entertains, where Villeneuve’s enthralled. It can’t beat the law of diminishing returns, but Soldado has an intelligence and ambition that’s all-too-rare in blockbuster season, let alone in a sequel. And if you think it’s far-fetched, just turn on the news.