Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
Back in 2015, a small film called Sicario found an audience, the grim, nihilistic thriller, that depicted the ways in which cartels organize the flow of illegal substances across the U.S./ Mexico border, resonating with a certain type of patron, those in the mood for something a little darker. The movie (which went on to become a tripe Oscar nominee) succeeded thanks to the talented team behind and in front of the camera, such as director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, cinematographer Roger Deakins and its big name stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. When I heard that a follow-up was in the works, I’ll admit, I was interested … well, until I discovered that the sequel had lost most of its key players, Blunt and filmmaker Villeneuve in particular. The trailers also had me worried, the promos giving off a dodgy straight-to-DVD vibe that reeked of those lesser cash-grabs from the ’00s — think S.W.A.T.: Firefight (2011) or American Psycho II: All American Girl (2002), which I actually saw coz of Mila Kunis.
Anyway, I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge, because returning writer Taylor Sheridan — who’s kinda becoming a master of the modern Western — has done it again, Day of the Soldado another bleak, merciless border-hopping exploit that’s hard-hitting, timely and not for the faint of heart. While the first film dealt with drugs, this cold-blooded continuation focuses on human trafficking, mainly the Islamic radicals entering the States via the Mexican border.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado opens with a couple of disturbing sequences. The first takes place at the Mexican border, where patrol officers confront a man who yells ‘Allahu Akbar,’ and then blows himself and those around him to bits. The second, and more upsetting, occurs at a Kansas City supermarket, where a number of suicide bombers are seen killing several victims including a distraught mother who pleads for her life and that of her child — just a warning, this scene may be genuinely distressing for some. To combat these threats the United States government calls on chiseled federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the higher-ups — CIA deputy director Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) and defense secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) — giving the cargo-short-wearing tough guy permission to play dirty in order to counter the cartels suspected of getting ISIS-type terrorists into their country.
Their solution to the problem is to start a feud between gangs by sneaking into Mexico to kidnap a 12-year-old girl, Isabela (Isabela Moner), the sheltered daughter of a cartel bigwig named Carlos Reyes, then making it look like it was the work of a rival faction, hoping that the abduction will trigger enough retaliation between parties to create a civil war, in turn crippling the structure that’s allowing the back-door entries to take place. To get the job done, Graver enlists the aid of a bunch of merciless operatives that don’t take well to orders, one of which is Benicio Del Toro’s attorney-turned-assassin Alejandro Gillick, who happens to have a close connection to the aforementioned kingpin, Carlos turning out to be the very man that ordered the cold-blooded murder of his wife and family all those years ago. After nabbing the young girl, however, Isabela begins to have an effect on the hard-hearted Alejandro, her fate ultimately driving a wedge between Gallic and Graver, the latter pressed to follow orders, no matter how severe.
The English-language debut of Italian moviemaker Stefano Sollima — I’d urge you to check out his excellent neo-noir mafia film Suburra (2015) — Day of the Soldado focuses on that complex border situation between the U.S. and Mexico, the film filled with insight and commentary on the developing situation. And while far from a Rambo-type action movie, Sollima still manages to stage a number of gripping testosterone-driven sequences, the highlight, a deadly double-cross that sees the corrupt Mexican police, who are escorting the Americans through the desert, turn on their convoy to attack Brolin’s team, the ambush resulting in a fierce, brutal shootout. This brings me to the film’s stereotypical xenophobic portrayal of Mexicans and Muslims, along with its right-leaning slant, to which I’d say, leave the politics behind and try to take this one at face value — honestly, I don’t think Sollima is trying to make any sort of political statements here.
Just like its forerunner, Day of the Soldado tracks the exploits of a seemingly unrelated boy; this time it’s Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American kid who lives a stone’s throw away from the border. Although his mom thinks he’s going to school, Miguel spends the bulk of his days with his hoodlum cousin who’s teaching him how to become a ‘coyote’ (someone who shepherds migrates), his function becoming clearer late in the third act, Miguel’s actions eventually paving way for the next chapter in the unlikely franchise.
Now, to answer the question on a lot of people’s minds: Does the absence of Emily Blunt’s Kate hurt this picture? The short response is ‘no,’ seeing as her conscience-driven character merely existed as a moral compass in the first movie (and wouldn’t be necessary here). With that out of the way, performances are uniformly solid. Josh Brolin, who can do this kinda military shtick in his sleep, is great as Matt Graver, our masculine protagonist who’s introduced as he’s interrogating a Somali terrorist in a holding cell, threatening to annihilate the man’s family (via attack drones) if he doesn’t answer a series of simple questions. Heck, between this, Only the Brave (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Deadpool 2 (2018), I’d say Brolin deserves to get some kind of award for his terrific work over the past 12 or so months. His co-star Benicio Del Toro, Traffic (2000), drips depth and nuance as the deadly Alejandro, the sociopathic hitman given more humanity this time around, chiefly as he forms an unexpected bond with Isabela Moner’s Isabela, this plot-thread exploring whether it’s possible for a monster of a man to ever regain his compassion — meh, I probably would’ve preferred to have seen more badassery from the guy.
With steely-eyed work from director Stefano Sollima, a rumbling, bassy score by Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, and sleek lensing by regular Ridley Scott DOP Dariusz Wolski, The Martian (2015), Sicario: Day of the Soldado is an ultra-serious crime-drama, one that should satisfy most who enjoyed the first outing, even if, unlike its predecessor, Day of the Soldado isn’t a self-contained film, this follow-on expanding Sheridan’s world whilst setting up for a third chapter. Either way, with Sheridan reportedly kicking around the idea that this was always going to be a trilogy, I’d be more than willing to revisit this lawless region; I just might need a strong shot of whisky after.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie