Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

by Andrew Parker

A sequel to Denis Villeneuve and Taylor Sheridan’s intense and surprising 2015 success Sicario remains unnecessary, but Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima’s follow-up (and second film in a now planned trilogy), Sicario: Day of the Soldado, takes the characters into intriguingly stickier moral territory. Although Sicario ended on an ambiguous note, it also felt contained and fully formed. Thankfully, this sequel doesn’t undo the work on Villeneuve’s film, and returning screenwriter Sheridan finds some refreshing new things to say about the plight of two of the first film’s original characters.

Instead of showing the unwinnable “war on drugs” from the perspective of a naive outsider, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is told from the perspective of the characters from the first film that are involved in the U.S./Mexico border battle every moment of their lives. Following a string of terrorist attacks in the American heartland that are the result of drug cartels smuggling people across the border, the president and his advisors turn to federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to step in and help put a stop to it. Graver turns to master assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) to make the first strike in an all new war, one where people have replaced drugs as the top commodity for those wishing to make money in the smuggling game. Graver tasks Alejandro with kidnapping the twelve-year-old daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel kingpin. Alejandro, who became a hired killer after the death of his family, begins to have second thoughts about his mission when it’s clear that Graver – a man keen on taking extreme measures to carry out his own vision of “the greater good” – doesn’t have the child’s best interests in mind.

Unlike Sheridan’s previous script, Sicario: Day of the Soldado starts off complex before gradually settling into a more simplistic groove. While the tension in Villeneuve’s film came predominantly from the continually evolving situation, Sollima’s film moves away from complexity and into more primal emotional territory. It’s not as satisfying of a trajectory as its predecessor, but in place of a grander storyline, Sheridan’s screenplay allows viewers a lot more insight into previously guarded characters.

Although they don’t share a lot of screen time together past the film’s halfway point, Brolin and Del Toro are exceptional counterpoints for each other to play with. Both men have the same mission and a similar degree of ruthless bloodlust, but their subtle ideological differences are always in danger of fracturing their relationship. Alejandro might be the better killer, but Graver has more resources and less hesitation when it comes to moral quandaries. Alejandro is a bear. Graver is a wolf. Neither man says more than they absolutely half to, with Sollima and Sheridan making sure to give their actors plenty to work with during the film’s more chillingly silent moments.

Moner is sympathetic as the child caught in the middle, delivering an intelligent performance that’s wise beyond the young actor’s years. Catherine Keener is also a welcome addition to the cast as Graver’s perpetually stressed out boss, continuing a string of recent films where the actress has ditched the “nice person” routine in favour of darker, villainous fare. Both bring a uniquely feminist touch and subtext to an otherwise resolutely macho affair.

Sollima directs the film with a steady, patient hand, allowing plenty of room for his cast to experiment with their characters without losing the tone of the script. Sollima isn’t the stylist that Villeneuve was, and the action beats throughout are slightly disappointing, but the landscapes and non-descript backrooms are appropriately nightmarish and unwelcoming. It’s gorgeous and brutal, which is exactly what a film pitched at this level requires. Even the sight of an otherwise innocuous mall food court feels inhospitable and somewhat dangerous.

There’s an eerie timeliness to Sicario: Day of the Soldado that the previous film lacked, and it’s hard to tell if the film’s topicality works in its favour. With much ink and rhetoric being spilled about immigrants crossing the border from Mexico into the United States and families being separated upon entering “the land of the free,” there’s a constant unease while watching a film built around a “child in peril” plotline. There’s no way Sheridan or Sollima could have ever predicted while making Sicario: Day of the Soldado that relations between Mexico and the U.S. would ever become this strained and fraught, but in this cultural moment their storyline carries with it a newfound, probably unexpected layer of poignancy.

It will be interesting to see what audiences make of all this in light of recent world events. I saw Sicario: Day of the Soldado two months ago – before the extent of America’s detention policies came to light – and now I find myself flip-flopping over the story’s effectiveness and resonance. I’m not quite sure if this is the right moment to release a film like this, but there’s definitely a conversation worth having that arises from the material. If nothing else, it makes a dangerous second act journey where Alejandro tries to sneak across the border with a child all the more harrowing.

But the main stumbling point remains that the first film was so well realized that this sequel’s final third stumbles more than it soars. Granted, there is a twist well before the end of the film that’s rather shocking and unexpected, but it also focuses largely on Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a fourteen year old boy trying to impress his cousin by becoming a cartel foot soldier. This is a plot thread that keeps popping up through the film, never really going anywhere until it becomes obvious that it’s all in service of setting up a third film. The first film was made without the knowledge that a sequel would be possible. Sicario: Day of the Soldado has been made with the knowledge that another sequel is inevitable, and the final third of this entry, while viscerally thrilling, comes across as forced and inorganic.

The interesting direction and character development contained within Sicario: Day of the Soldado makes one intrigued to find out where all of this will eventually lead, but it’s hard not to hope that the next installment ends with a full stop. It will probably come with a large degree of moral and political ambiguity, but a stop will be necessary. For a sequel that never needed to exist, Sollima’s follow up is better than expected. For a middle entry into a trilogy, it leaves one cautiously optimistic.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 29, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Sicario: Day of the Soldado:

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