- Sicario: Day of the Soldado
- Directed by: Stefano Sollima
- Written by: Taylor Sheridan
- Starring: Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin
- Classification: 14A; 122 minutes
When the drug-cartel thriller Sicario appeared in 2015, there was some debate among critics as to whether Denis Villeneuve’s menacing and ambiguous film was exploiting the violence it so artfully depicted. It seems unlikely there will be similar chatter about the sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Partly that is because it never produces an image as memorable as that of an Arizona bungalow stuffed with corpses hidden behind the drywall or mutilated bodies hanging from an overpass in Ciudad Juarez. But also it is because this is a much more conventional film with fewer pretensions to high art. Violence exploited for mere entertainment is so commonplace it hardly seems worth noting.
For the sequel, Stefano Sollima, an Italian television director who specializes in drama about organized crime, has produced a mainly satisfying thriller in which lawless U.S. agents stoke a cartel war on the Mexican border. Some of the creative personnel remain the same: writer Taylor Sheridan offers another script that is tightly penned and well plotted around a moral quagmire, again flirting with stereotypes even as he shatters them. Hildur Guonadottir, who played solo cello on the late Johann Johannsson’s looming score for the original, contributes a very similar soundtrack suggesting encroaching fate rather than suspense or surprise. And, thank goodness, the eminently watchable Benicio del Toro reprises the mysterious Colombian agent Alejandro while Josh Brolin contributes another of his superficially affable macho men.
Other things have changed, however: Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has the unenviable task of following Roger Deakins’s spectacularly sparse views of the Chihuahuan desert and largely avoids the comparison, offering only a handful of the aerial shots that made the first film so visually distinctive. And Villeneuve’s knack for finding something deeper in a genre scenario – see Arrival, or Blade Runner 2049 for that matter – has been replaced by Sollima’s workaday talents as a director of action.
As for the story, Sheridan reprises two of his central characters: Brolin plays Matt Graver, the CIA agent with contempt for legal niceties when it comes to fighting the cartels. Del Toro plays Alejandro, the brooding Colombian with a quest for vengeance since his wife was murdered and daughter thrown in a vat of acid. But Sheridan has softened both characters since their first, morally dubious outing; both seem to have lost their taste for torture – it’s mentioned in passing but not enacted – and Brolin is now playing the role of the decent man dealing with a bad situation.
Alejandro’s backstory, meanwhile, has undergone some tweaks that make him emerge as a clearer hero. One character who has fortunately gone missing is Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, the idealistic FBI agent who watched in horror as the tough guys operated outside the law. Mirroring the audience’s own shock at Graver’s modus operandi, the character, if not the performance, was a black hole in the original, gradually sucking life out of the movie as Blunt looked more stressed and fearful with each passing scene.
Without her, we are in more familiar and more easily heroic territory: Attempting to start a war between the cartels because they have now started shipping Islamic terrorists across the border alongside illegal immigrants and cocaine, Matt and Alejandro launch a plan to kidnap the daughter of a kingpin and blame it on his rival. When the kidnapping goes awry, Alejandro winds up being the girl’s protector and rescuer in a tense showdown with the coyotes who shepherd migrants across the Rio Grande.
Just in case you were planning on feeling sorry for Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) – she’s a young woman in a horrible situation and it’s hardly her fault that her father is a drug lord – Sheridan and Sollima show her at school in the hours before her kidnapping. She is pounding out another girl who has dared to call her a “narco whore.” The spoiled yet scrappy teen represents a refreshing explosion of type, which may seem like an odd compliment to pay a film that depicts all Mexicans as criminals. Still, once the film has invested a great deal of energy in the sometimes wily and other times fearful Isabel, it abandons her story in its last moments; it’s a problem Sheridan suffered from in the first Sicario, too, as he decided he wouldn’t produce the standard-issue tough female agent but then ran out of ideas for Kate.
In the end, the Sicario franchise is all about male violence, whether in the service of the coca or in the service of the state. The film’s climax revolves around Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a teenage American lured into crime by the easy money to be made leading migrants across the border. You can read his story as a dire prediction of the way in which crime breeds crime and violence breeds violence. In its final moments, however, it looks more like the passing of the torch to the next generation.