In a way, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the perfect movie for our time. It’s hollow, sure, but its glossy exterior largely manages to hide this fact, engaging in a kind of cinematic sleight of hand that manages to leave you stunned—provided, of course you don’t think too deeply about what it is you’ve just seen. It performs its illusions well, and takes its bows just quickly in order to let its audience back into the world before its shallow secrets can be mulled over and revealed.
Largely, it’s an effective strategy that, despite what many critics and fans say, doesn’t stray too far from the formula of its 2015 predecessor. That, too, hid itself beneath a haze of mystique that stood in the place of actual goodness. However, what Sicario had going for it that Day of the Soldado does not, was Denis Villeneuve.
Villeneuve stepped away from this sequel in order to work on both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. As lucky as we all are for that, Day of the Soldado is unlucky. Villeneuve brought an elegance to the table that more deftly hid the flaws of Sicario than its sequel does, masking them with his unique stylistic flairs and the cinematography of the incomparable Roger Deakins.
Here we have Day of the Soldado’s first illusion. Director Stefano Sollima does an adequate job trying to ape Villeneuve’s distinctive touches in an attempt to fool us into believing that these are trademarks of the franchise and not the director. Witness: a scene shot in night vision (an obvious callback to one of Sicario’s most memorable scenes) and the overhead shots of unmarked vehicles speeding across the US/Mexico border in a heavily choreographed dance of action movie delights.
While I suppose there’s something to be said for stylistic continuity, Sollima feels largely restrained by these decisions, paying too much reverence to his more experienced (and acclaimed) forebear to really come into his own as a filmmaker. His own touches are there, sure, but they remained buried beneath a mountain of mimicry that stifles any creativity he might have shown. Instead, we get a watered-down version of something we’ve already seen; a true disservice to these characters.
Illusion two is that Day of the Soldado has something important to say. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, himself a master of neo-noir cinema as seen in Hell or High Water or, to a lesser extent, Wind River, makes broad stroke efforts to mask Day of the Soldado in some kind of message, though what that may be is never quite clear. Perhaps because there is no message, and it’s all an excuse to blow shit up.
Maybe that’s reductive. I suppose you could draw out some subtext about the follow of American interventionism—nothing ever seems to go entirely right for Josh Brolin’s Agent Graver—but so much of the film plays to the baser instincts of modern America that any nuance he may or may not have intended will largely get lost in the crossfire.
The film opens with a pair of scenes that will surely set the Trumpian rage boners of the country athrob. As a team of border agents stop a group of migrants attempting to enter the country illegally, one of them is revealed to be a radical jihadist who blows himself up in the middle of the desert. Soon after, in a Kansas grocery store, a team of jihadists set off their own suicide bombs, killing a store full of innocent Americans.
For reasons, this means we must take out the Mexican cartels who rule the border. Enter Graver, who reactivates the mysterious, titular sicario (assassin) Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The pair then hatch a plan to kidnap the daughter of a cartel leader (Isabel Reyes) in the hopes that it will start a war between rival gangs.
It makes about as much sense as its forebear (which only made sense in the broadest of ways) and if you can manage to roll with it, it’s a fairly effective action thriller even as it tries to be something more. Brolin and Del Toro make a brilliant, unlikely action team which goes a long way towards saving Day of the Soldado from its lesser impulses.
Still, the narrative suffers from its lack of any particular main character. Emily Blunt’s absence is sorely missed in this outing. Her Agent Mercer gave us an elegant in road to the world of these films. While not strictly necessary this time around, we aren’t given much to grab onto; nothing anchors us to the narrative and the stakes, ultimately, feel low.
In the end, Day of the Soldado is just an action movie. In itself, that’s perfectly fine. But when you present yourself as something more than that and then fail to deliver, you’ve got a problem. Sure, it’s not necessarily one you’ll realize you’re having while watching it, or even immediately after, but the more you think about Day of the Soldado the less its own logic begins to make sense.
Perhaps, then, it’s best to just shut off the brain and enjoy the movie for what it is instead of what it wishes to be. While the whole Americans kidnapping a Mexican child storyline is rather unfortunately timed, and the subplot involving the flow of migrants into the country lacks the nuance and weight it deserves, the action itself is enough to keep interest high, even if the intrigue itself is low.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is now playing in theaters everywhere.