There are two reviews I can write about Sicario: Day of the Soldado. One compares the drug cartel thrill-drama to its inarguably superior predecessor. The other views it in a vacuum. One of these reviews disparages the film. The other provides a half-hopeful shrug of the shoulders.
To write this first review would be easy. With Sicario 2, director Denis Villeneuve is replaced by less-seasoned Italian director Stefano Sollima. As such, the intensity of the scenes are less felt. The drama feels more inert. Much of the procession of visual storytelling read more procedural.
Roger Deakins, director of photography on the first Sicario, is substituted for Dariusz Wolski. By no means a bad cinematographer, Deakins’ mastery brings the first film an elevated level of visual design that makes key sequences white-knuckle intense. In Soldado, no sequence ever lives up to what its predecessor does with the camera.
Broader scale shots, like the aerial shots of military caravans crossing over the United States-Mexican border or following shots of twin helicopters, have a similar visual vibe to Deakins’ work. But the boots-on-the-ground, tight quarters action looks much more rote.
Shifted too are the character perspectives, and this might be the key downfall of the film (if I were to go with the first review). Seeing the shifty, corrupt world of the drug cartels and the policing of through the eyes of characters in Sicario played by Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya adds a layer of humanity to the proceedings. These characters are green to the whatever-it-takes tactics of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and thus they have a conscience.
With Soldado, our only perspective is the amoral one. The moral gray areas introduced previously, with Blunt’s by-the-book Kate Macer pushing back against Graver at every turn, gave that film stakes and an emotional entry point.
But with this film, we are immediately introduced to a casual, uncommented upon nihilism. We first see, after a morbidly clever title card declares that the U.S.-Mexico border is controlled not by border control but by the Mexican cartels, a group of people illegally crossing the border. Only, they are not all Mexican citizens. One of them is a man of Middle Eastern descent (it is later intimated that he is from Yemen), and he is revealed to be an extremist with a bomb strapped to his chest.
Upon his vest detonating, we immediately cut to a suburban grocery store at night, where four men walk in and, one-by-one, detonate more suicide bombs.
This brutal opening is used as a gambit for the U.S. government to fight the cartels, and thus up positive PR for border security. With a terrorist attack on the border, Secretary of State James Riley (Matthew Modine) is given the leeway to declare the Mexican drug cartels a terrorist organization. As such, the U.S. military is allowed much more free reign in terms of how they decide to deal with such a threat.
Thus enters Graver, who also re-enlists gun-for-hire slash man-with-an-unending-vendetta-against-the-cartels Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The pair, and a small squadron of military personnel, are tasked with starting an internal war within the cartel by staging the kidnapping of the daughter of one of the cartel’s godfathers.
What follows is in an unendingly bleak series of action sequences, botched missions, and bloodshed. Compared to Sicario, it is a less-articulate bummer.
But what about the second review? Strip away the ingrained memory of the border cross scene from the first Sicario. Strip away Emily Blunt’s character, the invitation to the audience to care about what we are watching. Strip away the masterful cinematography of Deakins. Strip away the beat-for-beat intensity of every set piece, dictated exquisitely by the hand of Villeneuve.
What remains is a film, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which revels in the excesses of corruption that permeates from all sides. There is no escape from the immorality. There is no relief from the nihilism.
The lone scene that attempts to take a defibrillator to the black heart of this film, involving a family headed by two deaf parents, feels like a hail mary pass to win us over late in the film. It is around this point where Del Toro’s Alejandro is meant to become the audience’s invitation. He is the emotional crux, but it is difficult to buy it.
Otherwise, we have little in the way of anyone showing empathy for anyone else. There is the machismo, hide-behind-stone-faces brotherhood between Graver and Alejandro. More unhealthy than empathetic, I would say. And it seems as though we are asked to put emotional stock in the kidnapped daughter, who is considered more-or-less expendable by most characters’ standards.
Narratively divorced, Soldado remains a tough sell. It is hard on the soul, bleak for the sake of bleak, its only justification appearing to be that the world really is that bleak anyway.
Visually, however, I think Soldado holds a candle to other action dramas. As close as the camera is to the action during certain action sequences—so close that the action gets obstructed—the pacing of these scenes remains taut. Mainly, the set pieces are aided by story construction, where the story beats align with flurries of action in ways that sometimes yield unexpected results.
Once the narrative kicks off proper, which is to say following the inciting incident of the kidnapping, the stakes of the story match up with the increasingly violent action in ways that keep you rapt. They aren’t the most elegant of set pieces, but they command your attention.
All the same, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a bitter pill to swallow. At points, it even becomes hard to see the line between the characters’ apathetic perspectives and the perspective of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Are we meant to understand that our world is bleak beyond repair? Are we meant to walk out of this film loathing everyone with power and access to ammunition?
Or are we truly meant to come away remembering the isolated family and thinking that there is at least hope somewhere, hidden far out of sight in the desert between Texas and northern Mexico? I kind of doubt it.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)