Benicio del Toro: These are human beings and a lot of them are desperate for help
With Mexican drug cartels trafficking a new commodity, humans, the shadowy task force first assembled for gritty 2015 actioner Sicario are called on to do more dirty work in follow-up Sicario 2: Soldado. Oscar-winning star Benicio del Toro talks to Kerri-Ann Roper
BENICIO del Toro is looking friendly, relaxed and approachable. Given some of the gritty characters the Academy Award-winning actor has played over the years, not least the dead-eyed US government-employed assassin in Oscar-nominated 2015 thriller Sicario, this comes as a surprise.
The 51-year-old Puerto Rican-born star, whose three-decade movie CV features roles in films including The Usual Suspects, 21 Grams and more recently in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, returns to the big screen as lawyer-turned-hitman Alejandro Gillick in the second instalment of what may well turn out to be a trilogy, this time titled Sicario 2: Soldado.
In the first film, which saw English actress Emily Blunt cast as a principled FBI agent introduced to a drugs-lord-busting world whose moral boundaries are very much blurred, del Toro's character was hell bent on revenge after the murder of his family by the drug cartels. The follow-up film, released in Irish and British cinemas today, sees him teaming up with another returning hard man character, Josh Brolin, who reprises his role as federal agent Matt Graver.
"We see the beginnings of his rehabilitation," del Toro says of his character in the London hotel where we're meeting to talk about the film and about how much more of the man behind the pitiless killer we saw in Sicario – Spanish for contract killer – is revealed in the sequel.
"I think we start to see that there's a conscience inside of this hit man or this man with so much pain that in the first film we met a person who was bent on vengeance."
This time Alejandro and Graver plot the kidnap of a young girl, Isabela Reyes, the daughter of a drug cartel boss (played by 16-year-old Isabela Moner of Transformers: The Last Knight fame) on the orders of the American government who suspect the Mexican drug cartels are trafficking terrorists across the border into the US.
As such, an element of the film that certainly seems timely in terms of the news centres around families from Mexico trying to cross the border illegally into the United States. It's a storyline that chimes with the immigration furore that has grabbed international headlines in the past fortnight and the controversial way in which the Trump administration has handled it.
Did del Toro, who won an Oscar for his role in the similarly themed Steven Soderbergh hit movie Traffic in 2000, imagine that the script of Soldado would also come so close to being echoed in reality? He admits the timing is "weird".
"I don't know how it will affect the film, the release of the film," he says. "The timing – we can't control that, it's like the weather. But these issues and these problems, they've being going on for a long time and there's got to be a solution that needs to be fair, a solution with empathy.
"I think most of these families, when they make that decision to leave their own country, their culture, their language, to go to another country where they don't know anybody, with nothing, I think people think that's an easy decision."
He adds emphatically: "That's not an easy decision. That's a really scary decision and when people put themselves in that situation, you have to be in a really horrible place to make that decision."
"I think people forget that these are human beings with a heart and a lot of them are desperate for help."
The film's Italian director, Stefano Sollima, says the subject matter of human trafficking is one that strikes a chord beyond the US and Mexico.
"I think this is a topic that's actually real all over the world. Not just in the US. It's the same in Europe," he says. "It's how people are trying to escape from really poor places, and the dream to be in another place where they hope to have a better life.
"Yet unfortunately, this is rarely the case."
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the first film, which was directed by Canadian film-maker Denis Villeneuve, is full of praise for Sollima.
"It's very realistic and it's very unsentimental," he says, "We don't want to glorify the violence and we don't want to trivialise what people are going through.
"And so you need a film-maker who's unflinching, who's not afraid to show some of these shocking things that take place, and yet is not going to enhance them for the sake of the story."
The story takes a nail-biting turn that sees both Alejandro and Graver faced with a tough decision. Does del Toro think Alejandro attains any sort of moral redemption in the choices he ends up making?
"I don't know where he'll go, that's up to the writer, but I do believe at least we feel there is a moral redemption. But is he innocent? He's not innocent. He has committed crimes – but we can spare his life," he says.
Brolin, who turned 50 earlier this year, says the storyline is respectful.
"Sicario 2: Soldado takes very real scenarios and real possibilities, and even a real current event, and turning it into a condensed story that I think is beautiful, tragic, and has incredible scope," he says. "And it's respectful, respectful of the emotions that people go through."
The ending hints at a third instalment, something del Toro would heartily approve of.
"When I talked to Taylor during the filming of Soldado, he confessed to me that he always saw the Sicario movies as a trilogy and so you know, we took that second step so hopefully we'll move to the third step.
"I'm really interested to see where the writer would take this story and the characters".
- Sicario 2: Soldado is in cinemas from today