'Sicario: Day of the Soldado': Amoral men, stepping from the shadows
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is an unlikely sequel that undermines the strength of its predecessor’s story. In 2015’s “Sicario,” Emily Blunt played a talented FBI agent, Kate Macer, recruited for a black-ops mission to take down a Mexican drug cartel. Into dark places she follows Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a smirking and cynical U.S. government pointman stoking chaos south of the border, and his partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), an assassin trading ugly favors for an opportunity to fulfill a personal revenge mission.
It’s a movie depicting cold reciprocity, in which everyone coldly uses everyone else with little respect for international law or interpersonal concerns. The harsh truth sows disillusionment in Kate, who’s the story’s necessary moral foothold. It’s a strong rewatch, but it no longer exists in a narrative vacuum. “Day of the Soldado” follows a serious film with one that lacks the pointed intent of the first.
Some inventory: “Sicario” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, and photographed by Roger Deakins, who both made it a grim, artful work. “Soldado” is helmed by Stefano Sollima and shot by Dariusz Wolski, who tend to ape the moves of their predecessors - fine for continuity’s sake, but the tone set is one of familiarity, not freshness.
The common denominator is screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, a vibrant talent who isn’t afraid to inject critical themes into pulp (the brilliant modern Western “Hell or High Water”), or vice versa (“Wind River,” which he also directed). With “Day of the Soldado,” he once again shows a gift for staging rousing and suspenseful moments, forging a solid partnership with Sollima, who skillfully executes action sequences.
But the story leaves Blunt’s character behind, bringing back Brolin and Del Toro for another trudge through an amoral, politically murky soup. Graver and Alejandro are together again, fighting very, very dirty, and we’re privy to their points of view, shot through a warped lens. Graver is still a glib sower of discord in pursuit of modern American ideals, whatever that may mean. And Alejandro is a tragic character, his will to live driven, ironically, by a will to kill.
The film opens with a series of scenes unintentionally invoking troublesome current events in our own reality. Illegal migrants cross the border from Mexico to the U.S., and are pursued by helicopter spotlights; one man tries to escape, but once he’s surrounded by agents, he detonates a suicide bomb. In Kansas City, a trio of men walks into a department store and initiate explosions killing themselves and others, including children. Turns out, anti-American terrorists are being aided by Mexican drug cartels, who help ferry them over the border, hidden among innocents seeking asylum.
Given the green light by government honchos played by Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener, Graver aims to derail the biggest cartels by starting a war between them. The key component of his plan is to have Alejandro kidnap a drug lord’s teenage daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), and make it look like the work of a rival.
So there you have it: Images of a leaky border, and a plot in which a child is separated from her parents will likely raise the ire of significant swaths of the day’s political spectrum. Consider further chaos in the debate over U.S. immigration policies to be further stoked, It may be accidental, but it sure seems unavoidable.
Sheridan’s goals were certainly less ambitious. He and Brolin give hints that Graver may have an itchy conscience, but that’s the film’s least interesting, and least developed, character arc. Alejandro’s pairing with Isabel softens his wolflike demeanor - she no doubt reminds him of the daughter he lost - but later events attempt to lionize him as more legend than man, testing our tolerance for the implausible.
Weaved in is a subplot about a Texas teenager of Mexican heritage, Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), working for the cartel as a guide for illegal border crossings. Add in Isabel’s suffering, and you have a thematic thread - youth as collateral damage of international political ugliness - cluttered with genre-fiction tropes and hopeless mutterings on the state of the world and the motives of men. That, right there, should have been the film’s focus, with its returning characters remaining mysterious, walking metaphors for the broad space between good and evil, shadow players in a greater conspiracy. Where the first “Sicario” was the work of snipers, “Soldado” is scattershot, wavering between provocative and incoherent.