Sicario: Day of the Soldado (being released here under the more generic title Soldado: The Soldier) begins with something that feels a little incendiary given the situation today in the USA. Border patrol agents stop a group of people trying to sneak into the US. One of them turns out to be a Muslim suicide bomber. Later on, a group of bombers attack a store in Kansas City. This implied connection between Islamic terrorists and the Mexican cartel provides the justification to send in black ops specialist Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to deal with the situation. Along with his assassin colleague Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), he sets out to manufacture a war between rival cartels.
Sicario was a really unique thriller, following a competent and principled but ultimately helpless agent as she becomes witness to the absurdity of the war against the cartels, and the complicity of the United States in perpetuating the violence in Mexico. This sequel still has some of the nuance, but largely lets it sit on the back burner while it revels in an ultimately sensationalist subtext and the elevation of the first film’s complex antagonists to simpler, just marginally conflicted tough guy action heroes.
It feels like this sequel was reverse engineered from those traveling sequences from the first movie. It tries to recreate the tension of those sequences, which had its characters going into clearly dangerous territory. But since it invests so much in establishing how dangerous and how cool its main characters are, some of that tension dissipates. And the movie is a lot less inclined to examine the violence on screen, or to have anyone experience it from a perspective other than “some people just deserve to die.” It is a movie that becomes very unclear about its thematic intentions, whatever bigger ideas it might have coming muddled and half baked.
The movie works best when it’s just being efficient. It hums along on the machinery of this shady operation, going deep into the details of Graver’s plan to set these criminal organizations at each other. But there isn’t enough payoff to this plot. It ends up twisting into another direction, dodging the larger implications of the actions already taken, and instead turning the whole into a story about the personal choices being made by these men. A lot of stuff gets lost in the storytelling, which struggles to stitch together the disparate patches of this narrative.
The direction is competent, but unmemorable. A lot of what happens here looks like it could have been done on TV. And while that’s kind of okay, it does suffer greatly in comparison to what Villanueve and Deakins pulled off in the first movie. Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are always going to be compelling figures on screen, but there isn’t a whole lot to these roles. Their characters are tough and enigmatic, and not much else. They spend the movie being conspicuously unemotional in the face of whatever horror they’re currently engaging.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a tad too problematic to really enjoy as a straightforward action movie, and it isn’t smart enough to be anything more than that. The film just doesn’t seem to be as interested in parsing the complex absurdities of the US-Mexico border, getting into troubling territory as it pursues a sensationalist foundation for its inciting action. The film seems to be trying to live off the reputation of its predecessor, but it doesn’t make as much of an effort to find the queasy nuance in this horrible situation. And it all just becomes terribly difficult to swallow.