Film Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

This grim, propulsive and Emily Blunt-less sequel has Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro wreaking havoc on the cartels and their own frayed morality.
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The portentously named follow-up to Denis Villeneuve’s moody and murky 2015 cartel thriller starts with a pair of bombings and a declaration of war. A Muslim man blows himself up in Texas after being caught by the Border Patrol while stealing into the country. Then several other men walk into a supermarket in Kansas City and detonate more suicide bombs. The Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine, using that same clenched-jaw effect so disconcerting on “Stranger Things”) stares into the news cameras and announces, “Your bombs… empower us.” Behind closed doors, the same official tells a dark-ops specialist fresh from the Middle East that since the cartels are helping smuggle terrorists into the United States, they’re now designated terror networks. Meaning it’s time to apply post-9/11 shadow-war tactics to the war on drugs.

In the news business, they would call this confluence of scarifying and adrenaline-charging events Fox News Bingo. In the movie business, it’s just Sequel Maintenance. That dark-ops guy with the Crocs, cargo shorts, smirky swagger and laissez-faire approach to enhanced interrogation is Matt (Josh Brolin). Even though Matt is able to sign up his old lawyer-turned-avenger buddy Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, delivering a surprising amount of gravitas), he’s having far less fun than when tweaking the original’s by-the-book FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). This time out, there’s no Kate to tangle with Matt’s mission priorities. Given a blank check and a directive to sew chaos south of the Rio Grande, Matt decides to kidnap Isabel (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel boss, and make everyone think it’s another cartel. What could go wrong?

Much of the movie, for starters. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is a melange of clipped clichés, like “I’m going to have to get dirty” and “No rules this time” (What rules were there last time?), layered around a couple of big action set-pieces with corrupt cops and sicarios in the Mexican desert, an underdeveloped and too-convenient side plot with a Texas kid (Elijah Rodriguez) starting out as a coyote for the cartels, and a brief replay of the hitman and lost girl pairing last seen in Logan. Catherine Keener is introduced as an untrustworthy government official (Is there any other kind in this kind of gritty warrior story?) with an even more Hobbesian view of the world than Matt and Alejandro, seemingly just to ensure that the audience doesn’t lose sympathy for the gun-slinging heroes getting betrayed on all sides.

Working in a darker palette than the original’s rich Roger Deakins tones, Italian director Stefano Sollima (Suburra, the “Gomorrah” TV series) acquits himself decently with the propelling but thin material. There is only so much a director can do to bring surprise to certain stock elements—it would be refreshing to just once see a convoy survive a movie without being ambushed—but Sollima knits together big, sweeping aerial shots and tight-in, juddering angles that work each nerve not already done to pieces by all the automatic weapons fire and exploding vehicles. As the story turns darker and even more morally compromised, the tone shades bleaker as well.

That bleakness is one of the only things that keeps this lean but dramatically unbalanced entry in the series afloat. Before the almost laughably chopped-off conclusion, which seems to have been structured simply to set up Sicario 3, the movie starts suggesting that there might be a price to pay for all this unfettered American war-making. It’s no accident that the first time we see Matt, he’s threatening to massacre the family of a Somali pirate, who shouts, “This is a bluff, you’re American!” The pirate is only right about the second part. The issue with Day of the Soldado, though, is that it ends before any chickens have come home to roost.

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