2015’s nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thriller Sicario didn’t need a sequel. The story of a young FBI agent getting a firsthand look at the conflict between the US authorities and the Mexican drug cartels, and the brutality on both sides of the border, was perfectly self-contained, and certainly wasn’t crying out for further exploration. But the first film was a critical and commercial success, and before long producers tapped writer Taylor Sheridan to begin crafting a follow-up story.
Decidedly more grim than its predecessor, Sicario: Day of the Soldado posits a scenario where migrants attempting to cross the border are accompanied by radical Islamic terrorists, opening a new front in the war against ISIS. Federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is appointed by the Secretary of Defense to wage a covert operation that will ignite a war between two of the largest and most deadly cartels, and he once again recruits mysterious vigilante Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), who has a personal vendetta against one of the drug lords.
The setup finds Graver and Alejandro kidnapping the daughter of the kingpin, and staging the event to look as though the rival cartel was responsible. In an age where migrant children are being separated from their families and held in glorified cages, there’s something deeply unsettling about watching a young Mexican girl terrorized and traumatized by a group acting on behalf of the US government. The scenes where Isabel (Isabela Moner, recently seen in Transformers: The Last Knight) is restrained, blindfolded and begging for her life are especially harrowing, and it’s even more reprehensible to see the people responsible positioning themselves as the heroes.
The second stage of Graver’s plan goes spectacularly awry, leaving Alejandro stranded in a remote part of Mexico with Isabel. Despite the fact that she’s been regarded as little more than a bargaining chip up to this point, Alejandro forms a strange attachment to the girl, vowing to escort her to safety. Even more inexplicable is the affection that Isabel develops for Alejandro: at this point she’s been able to deduce that he was the orchestrator of her situation, so it takes a tremendous leap for us to believe she would warm up to him so quickly. The latter portion of the film feels as though it’s borrowing heavy from the relationship in last year’s post-apocalyptic western Logan, but the authenticity just isn’t there.
The film’s third act strains the limits of credulity even further, as Graver defies everything we’ve learned about him across two films and develops a conscience at the drop of a hat, while another character’s fate is sealed in a truly shocking turn of events, only to have its impact erased by an absurd revelation mere moments later. Both Brolin and Del Toro are dynamite in their performances, but many of their actions are so unconscionable that it’s almost impossible to feel good about rooting for them.
Throughout Sicario: Day of the Soldado, there are flashes of the same elements that were so captivating in the previous film, but these moments are fleeting at best. Overall, the combination of Sheridan’s script (his weakest and most disappointing by far), and director Stefano Sollima’s inability to capture the same atmosphere created by Denis Villeneuve (although he almost pulls it off a few times) make for a sequel that’s better than expected – for the most part, the action scenes are tremendous – but still a far cry from the original. Here’s hoping the inevitable third installment brings Emily Blunt back into the fold, so we can at least look forward to a character whose moral compass is still in working order.