Sicario never needed a sequel. Denis Villeneuve's drug war horror film hit like an atom bomb with its fatalistic narrative regarding covert operations in Mexico, as Emily Blunt's green FBI agent Kate Macer acts as the audience's guide to these bloody, unsettling happenings below the United States’ border. Not only was her narrative self-contained within that picture, but with Day of the Soldado, no such identification point is necessary. We're now familiar with black gloved government scoundrels such as Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and assassins like Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). She was just a pawn in the game they were playing, a key used to unlock a door so that Graver could wage another war against the cartel, and Gillick could seek savage justice against the men who mowed down his family.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is Graver and Gillick's movie, as we follow them step-by-step through the methodology of pursuing another off the books offensive against America's enemies. This time, instead of drugs, it's terrorists who are flooding our country via the border, as extremists enact a horrifying attack on a Texas grocery store (in a cold, detached sequence pulled straight from a Republican candidate's nightmares/campaign speeches). Italian director Stefano Sollima – son of the great poliziotteschi maestro Sergio Sollima (Revolver) – stages the set piece with the numbed precision of a coked up plastic surgeon, as innocent civilians impotently scream for the suicide bombers to stop before clutching their children and offering the Lord a final prayer. It’s a chilling glimpse into how the rest of this second Sicario is going to be handled, as collateral damage is cherished in these sorts of frightening holy crusades.
In response, Graver is called in by Defense Department bureaucrat James Ridley (Matthew Modine) to begin a dirty confrontation with, well, everyone. Sollima's film – which was penned by returning scribe Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) – then becomes almost a pure process picture, as he reunites his team – which includes both trigger man Gillick and his right hand intelligence soldier Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan) – to enact a series of strikes on the men responsible for this atrocity. However, their targets aren't embedded cells, but rather the cartels again; whose trafficking in people has become a much more profitable business model than white or brown powder. Kidnappings, murder, and large scale destruction are all part of the American Way when it comes to Graver silently protecting its citizens, and Brolin makes no bones about how much his character enjoys the nefarious job he’s so good at.
Don't be fooled by the trailers Sony has cut for Day of the Soldado. This isn't the Redbox ready trash action spin-off that the studio’s been selling for the last six months. Sollima retains the portentous, dreadful horror ambiance from Villeneuve's first film, while adding in his own chilling Eurocrime remove. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski relishes the icy steel and glass of Mexico City high rises, before painting the country's deserts with the same desolate mix of muddy browns that he brought to Ridley Scott's talky homage to his late brother's violent cinema, The Counselor. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir replicates the engulfing whirr of her sadly departed mentor Jóhann Jóhannsson, while using her trusty cello to layer lingering melancholy on top of the jet black procedures. It all combines for a rather potent piece of hyper-violent dronecore - art that's seemingly never content unless you're totally disconcerted.
Brolin is again having a ball slipping into Graver's sandals, torturing men in the name of obtaining intel on his vectors, before Alejandro swoops in as his agent of doom, abducting the cartel head's unruly daughter (Isabela Moner) from her green oasis of a private school. It's only after Graver's team goes too far that his intelligence community overseers (headed by Catherine Keener, in all her frigid glory) call the mission off in the name of international public relations. Now, Graver’s squad has to cut all ties, but Gillick isn't ready to execute a tiny drug princess just so they can wash these ugly duties from their hands. So, Graver's got a choice: hunt down the former lawyer turned avenging angel that he hand-picked and trained himself, or disobey his direct orders.
Unfortunately, this late in the game development also leads to some rather out of character decisions on both Graver and Gillick’s parts. Without spoiling anything, one of the most intriguing elements of both Sicario and Day of the Soldado is how they seem to mostly operate on a rather amoral plane. These aren't movies that judge their characters’ actions, but rather present them for what they are: decisions reached in order to accomplish the assignments at hand. These are soldiers in an apocalyptic war that has no end in sight, so their unflinching commitment to raining down hellfire on their enemies is actually understandable from a level of pure professionalism. When any of these grunts start suddenly developing consciences and deviating from the plans, it flies in the face of how Villeneuve, Sollima and Sheridan collectively sketched them. In short, we anticipate pure nihilism by Day of Soldado’s final reel and instead receive a sort of idealized polemic, which just doesn’t fit with what came before.
There’s also the curious inclusion of Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a lowest level barrio kid who enters the world of human trafficking in an attempt to find acceptance and money via the Mexican gangs. His thread is woven into this rough fabric in a fashion that makes us question exactly how his narrative is going to intersect with Graver and Gillick’s. Once we get a clearer picture of his involvement – which also serves to illustrate just how far the Lovecraftian tentacles of the cartels reach – it’s both somewhat obvious while also feeling slightly forced. His insertion isn’t merely a simplistic “child of war” fable, but also a somewhat desperate attempt to “franchise” the Sicario films into a probable trilogy (which the producers have already hinted at in recent interviews). As we've learned with the last decade's deluge of comic book cinema, sometimes this need for IP continuation comes at the expense of dramatic stakes.
On the whole, these criticisms are actually minor, as the rest of Day of the Soldado is so expertly crafted that you can’t fully fault its creators for wanting to make the movie slightly more accessible and marketable. All of the characters included are the very definition of “antiheroes”, so exploring their morals isn’t exactly a totally off the reservation narrative choice. One just wishes that it grooved with the tune that preceded it slightly better. Moreover, this is a studio sequel to a movie that was a modest adult hit at best, and doesn’t have any readily obvious elements that scream “spin-off”. Sollima and Sheridan are obviously running with the original’s success and transforming Sicario into a series of movies about the nitty-gritty of clandestine combat. That’s pretty special in a studio landscape mainly dominated by somewhat juvenile cape pictures. Now, bring on the third film, where those left standing just kill everything in their paths.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado hits theaters next Friday, June 29th.