Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 drug war thriller Sicario is a crushing masterclass in tension, sparse landscapes full of violence, and grim realism. The follow-up, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, while filling a certain niche, feels very much like a facsimile. Gritty and low-down and dirty, it watches like one of those should-have-been DTV titles that magically gets a theatrical run because of name recognition. Think London Has Fallen or pretty much anything with Gerard Butler these days and you’re in the ball park. This comes with positives, but also drawbacks.
Day of the Soldado offers a reasonable recreation. New director, Stefano Sollima (Gomorrah, the TV show not the movie), mimics his predecessor, writer Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) returned to pen the sequel, and cinematographer Dariusz Walski (The Martian, Alien: Covenant), an accomplished pro in his own right, apes Roger Deakins, who lensed the original, well enough. They capture the sweeping vistas, constant tension, and escalating sense of pressure and lurking violence.
While the surface trappings echo the original, Day of the Soldado lacks the character development, depth, and nuance the first offers. It never connects quite the same. However, it largely makes up for this with a mean-spirited, nasty streak that, while present before, takes center stage. Instead of focusing on Emily Blunt’s character, the plot revolves around Josh Brolin’s government spook, Matt Graver, and Benicio Del Toro’s near-mute, vengeance-minded former-lawyer-turned-hitman, Alejandro. But even then, it’s missing of the raw, visceral impact that truly drives the tension and thematic escalation.
After a terrorist attack on U.S. soil perpetrated by at least one person smuggled across the Mexican border, the government calls in Graver to start a full-scale war between the cartels. Funded by the government, he enlists Alejandro and a gang of mercs to sow the seeds of chaos in a convoluted plot that involves kidnapping Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner, Transformers: The Last Knight), the daughter of a cartel kingpin, and blaming it on a rival crew. The plan, of course, goes south, and they have to deal with the fallout. There’s also a thread with a burgeoning coyote that, while it starts out intriguing—a young kid living on the border (Elijah Rodriguez) falling in with the cartels—ultimately exists for narrative convenience and accomplishes little but filling time.
Trump stans are going to love Day of the Soldado and point to this fictional enterprise as a reason why we need a wall and to persecute everyone who isn’t white. On the other side, they’ll use it for as evidence that the government is involved in illicitly fostering and financing instability and chaos around the globe. Which they are, they always have. Basically, the conversation around this movie is going to be insufferable and whatever your political agenda, you can use it to meet your ends. So, go nuts.
But I think that’s giving the film too much credit. It’s not that smart or insightful and doesn’t have anything to say in either direction. While it may be a symptom, it’s nothing deeper than a dark, filthy crime thriller, which is where it works best and offers the most entertainment. Every non-action scene unfolds the same way. They build until one guy—it’s always a guy, there are like two women in this movie—says a tough line and we cut away. You can almost feel Sheridan work backwards from the endpoint and construct the scaffolding to support these one-liners.
When the core duo breaks apart, it feels like Brolin and Del Toro embark on two different movies. Brolin, drawling like half of his mouth is fused shut, says ridiculous tough-guy, DTV-style things. In one scene, he looks at his boss (Catherine Keener) after he caught a bullet in the arm in a shootout with Mexican cops, brandishes his wound, and quips, “Fuckin’ Mondays, huh?” He’s awesome and campy and clearly enjoying the fuck out of his time on set.
Del Toro, on the other hand, is legitimately fantastic. Quiet and understated, he speaks in vagaries and deposits an emotional oomph. He has a strong chemistry and connection with Moner, and the two for an earnest, delicate bond as they attempt to cross the border. The narrative splits into this near-exploitation style story about military intervention and another about two unlikely travelling companions on a fraught, harrowing journey. Both are fine, though they never meld into a coherent whole.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a jumble. It hits vicious highs and shrug-worthy, who-gives-a-shit moments. But for the most part, I was on board with the grim, tension-filled narrative. Even if it’s ultimately empty, it’s a solid, stripped-down story of the overlap between governments and drug traffickers, and the violence this mix so often breeds. However, it betrays itself in the final few minutes, taking a ludicrous leap, leaving one key plot strand dangling in the wind, and trying to develop a spine and take a stance, a move that rings hollow and false. The film and its very existence parallels the story and the drug war. Ultimately, it’s mostly pointless and wasteful and driven by American appetites. [Grade: B-]