Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP/Lions

Film

'Sicario: Day of the Soldado' Is Uncomfortably Relevant

Count on Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin to be at their peak whenever they're lucky enough to land material that lets them unleash full-on macho bad-assery. In the super violent, bleak, topical, politically right-leaning action thriller Sicario: Day of the Soldado, both actors get under the skin of their grim, determined, scary and amoral characters, and their work is thrilling.

That is something of a triumph in itself because this sequel to the damning, morally ambiguous 2015 war on drugs Sicario hits theaters minus most of the personnel that made the first movie soar. Gone are its centerpiece star Emily Blunt, maestro director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Johann Johansson. Day of the Soldado goes first and foremost for straight-up sound and fury, and it shrugs off the first movie’s quirks and penchant for tense, quiet suspense, let alone its moral and ethical conflicts.

Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), who also wrote Sicario, penned the sequel's screenplay, most of which exploits violence, mistrust and dirty doings at the U.S.-Mexico border. In the film's opening, desperate migrants are depicted struggling their way across the U.S. while border-patrol choppers and armored vehicles lie in wait to round them up. Soon after, we get a ruthless terrorist attack on a Kansas City hardware store—complete with a screaming, terrified mom and kid pleading for mercy until a man cries “Allahu Akbar” and blows himself and his surroundings to smithereens.

These scenes will whip a certain kind of audience into a frenzy of all-American, jingoistic, God’s-on-our-side retribution and violence. With the news so recently filled with indelible sounds and images of terrified, weeping, abducted legal-immigrant toddlers and distraught parents fleeing oppression, with immigrants openly described as subhuman, these scenes become painfully and uncomfortably relevant.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado shrugs off the first movie’s quirks and penchant for tense, quiet suspense, let alone its moral and ethical conflicts.
Sheridan’s narrative, directed by veteran Italian crime-movie specialist Stefano Sollima (TV’s Gomorrah), centers on what happens when U.S. Department of Defense brass (weaselly Matthew Modine, and an underserved Catherine Keener, barely given a chance to register) assign a new directive to Brolin’s snarly, gum-chewing, no-B.S. CIA operative Matt Graver: Halt illegal trafficking across the border. "You want to see this through, I am going to have to get dirty," he says.

He isn't kidding. Neither is Modine, who volleys back, "Dirty is exactly why you're here." Keener's character advises Graver to "kill everybody involved, and don't leave a miss." Graver gets sent to Mexico and quickly ropes in Alejandro Gillick, the Medellin Mercenary Assassin With a Past (Del Toro), to spark chaos, bloodshed and all-out war among Mexican drug cartels. They mastermind the kidnapping of the feisty 12-year-old daughter Isabel (Isabela Moner) of one of the drug world's biggest baddies, blame it on a rival gang of thugs and let vengeance, ignorance and machismo take their course.

Things get gnarly, the complicit U.S. government leaves Gillick and Graver high and dry, and just like that, lives are at stake, meaning action sequences, chases, bullets and bloodletting—lots of it—are the order of the day. But when Del Toro's more-than-faintly mythic, preternaturally efficient, Wolverine-like character sees in Isabel a daughter figure and his shot at personal redemption, the movie sinks into cheap sentiment—a trap at least Logan mostly avoided. A scene in which Gillick and a deaf Mexican peasant communicate through sign language is so embarrassingly mawkish that you may want to look the other way. Or chortle. Or both.

In such a blatantly nihilistic movie, these scenes ring false and opportunistic. After all, what we really have here is a cynical, chest-beating, fake-deep movie, the makers of which insist we see the world as a bottomless pit of duplicity, greed and betrayal. Why else feature a Sam Peckinpah-ish desert scene of a blindfolded character thrashing in agony as his head gushes blood?

In the universe of Soldado, no one can be trusted, neither Mexicans nor Americans. Hearts and minds can’t be changed. Motives are always dirty. Everything is crap. That makes the well-shot (by Ridley Scott favorite Dariusz Wolski), well-directed Soldado a xenophobe’s wet dream. It’s also obviously and clumsily set up for yet another sequel—one that threatens to be even more action-packed and even less interested in character and nuance than this one. Hey, Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt and Taylor Sheridan—for art's sake, how about coming back and doing a rescue mission on the Sicario series before it becomes just another action franchise? 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Pros
Brolin and Del Toro thrill, and the topic could not be timelier
Cons
Too many moments ring false and jingoistic
Rating: 3 out of 4 bunnies

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