I’ve read a handful of rather perplexing reviews of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”, the new sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s exceptional 2015 border thriller. It seems the film’s perceived politics has stirred the ire of a segment of moviegoers. Perhaps it’s the byproduct of Trump-era baggage being projected onto every frame. It’s surprising because my political takeaway (much like its predecessor) saw “Soldado” as something far more than a slanted, one-sided critique of the U.S./Mexico border situation.
Several significant names from the first movie are missing – director Villeneuve, lead actress Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. That’s a ton of important, top-tier talent to replace. This could be why “Soldado” was such a wonderful surprise. It doesn’t just succeed at being a really strong movie despite these absences, but it also manages to capture much of the look, tone and intensity which made the first film so great.
A key reason for its success is returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. His recent film credits have been impressive – “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River” in addition to the two “Sicario” pictures. You could call Sheridan the premier architect of the modern American Western, bringing a new flavor to his frontiers which are full of lawlessness and violence. “Soldado” fits perfectly into that mold.
Sheridan’s story is more of a spin-off than a straight sequel and it’s anchored by the returning Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. Both were key supporting characters in the first film who had enough intrigue and/or depth to head a new chapter. Toss in the ugliness of the current border situation over the past few weeks along with the shameful politicization of the issue and you have an unintended added relevancy.
The film’s opening sets the table. A coyote for a Mexican cartel is smuggling immigrants across the border when the U.S. border patrol swoops in. During the roundup a suicide bomber masquerading as an immigrant detonates himself among the agents. It and a subsequent attack leads the White House to declare Mexican cartels to be terrorist organizations.
Enter Brolin’s Matt Graver, a CIA black-ops agent who specializes in doing the government’s dirty work. The irresolute Defense Secretary (Matthew Modine) tasks Graver with making things messy between the cartels. To do that Graver lets loose hitman-turned-rogue operative Alejandro Gillick (del Toro). They organize a plan to kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a powerful kingpin and frame a rival cartel for the abduction. But when Graver’s war spills over to involve the Mexican government, Washington loses its nerve and orders Matt to “clean the scene”. This drives a wedge between Graver and Gillick with Isabela caught in between.
Italian director Stefano Sollima helms the “Soldado” ship and some have stated he is no Villeneuve. Maybe so, but that kind of comparison is pointless. Sollima more than holds his own showing an impressive knack for building tension-soaked sequences and effectively experimenting with different perspectives. Accomplished cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (known best for his worth with Ridley Scott and on Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates” movies) peppers the film with imagery that stays in sync with Deakins’ Oscar-nominated work from the first picture.
Sollima also does a good job managing Sheridan’s numerous moving parts and intersecting storylines. One such angle involves a McAllen, Texas teen (Elijah Rodriguez) lured into the world of drug smuggling and human trafficking. It’s a poignant side story given room to breathe by Sollima until it converges with the main narrative. It also helps to have two actors like Del Toro and Brolin. Both are so perfectly cast and portray their characters with such energy and conviction.
“Day of the Soldado” is a strong, formidable second chapter of the “Sicario” series. As its many layers of compelling story unfolded, I found myself once again caught up in its dark and uncomfortable world. I also found unique and unexpected human elements which sets things on an interesting course for the third film they clearly have in mind. And with relatively modest budgets, we should get it. I’m onboard.
And for those struggling with the political meaning of “Soldado”, I can only share what I think it’s saying – There is no easy answer to the border issue. The solution is neither black or white. One thing is for certain, many people are benefitting at the cost of others. From cartels to governments; politicians to traffickers. But caught in the middle are desperate people who get lost in the wrangling. At one point in the film, a character tells another “They’re just Sheep. Treat them like it.” It’s an ugly sentiment, one of many “Soldado” challenges us to wrestle with.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS