Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)


Few films beg for a sequel less than Sicario (2015), Denis Villeneuve and Taylor Sheridan’s muscular thriller about a female FBI agent caught up in the violence between American law enforcement agencies and the cartels on the US-Mexico Border. And yet here we are, with a sequel/spin-off to Sicario focusing on two of the three main characters from the first film: Benicio del Toro’s shadowy hitman, Alejandro Gillick, and Josh Brolin’s amoral C.I.A. operative, Matt Graver. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is not the sort of moral interrogation and overwhelmingly dread-filled formalist exercise that its predecessor is, but it is an effective action-thriller with a more complicated set of themes than viewers with preconceptions about the subject matter are likely expecting.

The film reunites Alejandro Gillick and Matt Graver in a plot to start a gang war between rival cartels after the cartels transport Islamist terrorists over the border, who promptly blow up a grocery store in Kansas City. The incident conveniently lets the Americans place cartels on the list of terrorist organizations and raise hell across the border with a false-flag operation meant to set the cartels at each other’s throats. 

The plan is to kidnap the daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel boss and make it seem like cartel rivals took her in retaliation for an assassination. When laid out on paper, the plot sounds like the wet-dream of paranoiac “law-and-order” neocons, but the film is too complicated to pander to ideologically-driven viewers (aside from in the admittedly exploitive opening when we watch three Jihadists blow themselves up in public). Sicario: Day of the Soldado confounds the viewer’s understanding of these events as it delves into an uncompromising look at the monstrosity of the drug war, and the chaos it rains down on people on either side of the border as well as those trying to cross over it.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado has the (un)happy coincidence of coming out in the midst of a political crisis regarding the US-Mexico Border and undocumented migrants, making it an overwhelmingly topical film that remarkably has little-to-no interest in laying out easy political conclusions. Depending on the severity of how you identify politically, you’ll likely have wildly different takes on the film, and be preoccupied with vastly different elements. For instance, PC-minded leftists will balk at the focus on illegal border crossings and the spotlight on the cartels, which, in the minds of the American public, can culturally overshadow and replace the very cultures these cartels dominate and oppress. Patriotic conservatives will dislike the film’s clear-eyed vision of America’s military evils and its disdain for international law.

Writer Taylor Sheridan, who with Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River has arguably become the most important writer of modern-day American Westerns as well as a keen investigator of masculinity in film, is having none of it in terms of simplistic political narratives. Instead of simple denouncement or pandering, he focuses the film on Alejandro Gillick, challenging the ethics of a supposedly-amoral individual in a scenario of almost-impossible complexity. Shrinking down a transnational political and criminal justice struggle into a personal tale about revenge and possible redemption isn’t the most novel of storytelling moves, but Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the most straightforward genre storytelling of any of Sheridan’s films. Furthermore, the focus on Alejandro and Matt Graver allows Sheridan and director Stefano Sollima to explore the cold-hearted efficiency of Imperial America through brutally-effective action scenes.

In particular, a central action scene involving a convoy into the Mexico countryside echoes the standout Juarez convoy scene from the first film, but it also uses our knowledge of how that first scene plays out against us. Director Sollima, who has made a name for himself directing European television crime dramas like Gomorrah, relishes the tension inherent in shot reverse-shot constructions of scenes. For instance, he uses a series of cuts between, on the one hand, images of Alejandro, Matt, and the kidnapped daughter of the cartel boss in a humvee and, on the other, the Mexican federal police in the vehicle in front of the humvee to build a confined and tense atmosphere. The confined space of the humvee interior suggests safety and security, which contrasts with the weapons of war that are visible on the Mexican vehicle through the front window. The percussive cutting between each vantage point amplifies the tension until the inevitable explosion of violence, but it mines the tension, making us dread each coming shot as it might announce the violence.

In this sequence, Sollima also reveals a penchant for manipulating the backgrounds of frames, using out of focus and seemingly incidental actions that the viewer is only half-aware of to hint at coming action. This method borrows from the horror filmmaking tradition, which explains some of the impressive tension, even dread, that’s conjured during the action scenes.

If Sicario: Day of the Soldado is as effective an action film as its predecessor, it’s less successful as a drama. You feel the lack of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, who provides a moral skeleton to that film and allows Villeneuve and Sheridan to explore the misogyny and machismo of American policing and militarism and how this plays into the drug war.  As well, the blatant cliffhanger at this film’s ending is more befitting of an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than a complex action thriller about the US-Mexico Border. A firmer resolution would’ve been preferable.

There’s something to be said about the film’s nonjudgmental and apolitical approach to ethics. It allows the film to cut to the chase of its brutal action scenes, and use those moments to leave you with a moral queasiness that’s accurate to the scenarios it depicts, even as your heart is pumping from the thrill of the violence. But transforming Alejandro Gillick into the de-facto moral centre of the film (no matter how psychologically convincing that transformation is) and jettisoning some of the existential rigour of the first film makes Sicario: Day of the Soldado a step-down from Sicario.

I’m still satisfied by the fact that Sheridan delivers a good sequel, even if it’s a film I never asked for.

7 out of 10

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018, USA)

Directed by Stefano Sollima; written by Taylor Sheridan; starring Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Elijah Rodriguez, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener.