Movie Review : Sicario - Day of the Soldado (2018)
There are two things you need to know about movie sequels:
1) There’s never as good as the original.
2) If they’re not from the same director, they will be fucking terrible.
It’s a rule in Hollywood, but there are exceptions to it. A sequel written by the same all-star screenwriter as the original and that features characters who were supporting cast is a pretty great curve ball. It’s an idea so uncommon that it can work. And work it did in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed 2015 thriller Sicario. I can only have respect and admiration for a sequel that treats its predecessor with complete disdain without ruining anything about it.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado features support characters from the original Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and his nasty, by-any-means necessary U.S government buddy Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who are tasked with starting a war between two cartels. The organizations have been declared terrorist organizations by an inexperienced government, so operatives are being given more resources to fight them. Alejandro and Matt decide to start that war by kidnapping a cartel heir (Isabela Moner), which goes along fine… until it doesn’t and they’re forced into a deadly shootout with Mexican police. Shenanigans ensue.
Creating a sequel to a movie that was clearly not designed to have one could’ve went wrong in so many ways, but Sicario: Day of the Soldado makes smart narrative choices and stays within itself. It’s a movie about Mexican drug cartels that’s completely stripped of the folklore that is commonly associated with these organizations. There is no real ostentatious display of luxury, no ubiquitous gunmen or large scale massacre of innocent people. The Mexico presented by director Stefano Sollima and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is a hyperviolent labyrinth filled with duplicitous moles and terrified locals you can’t quite differentiate.
That brings me to Isabel, the cartel boss’ daughter Alejandro and Matt decide to kidnap. Her loneliness is complete and sublime. Not once in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, you hear from her father. Presenting her like she’s a material possession to the people who are supposed to love her was a bold and successful choice. It also enabled Alejandro, who’s family was massacred by a lieutenant of her father's, to feel responsible for her. The post-police ambush desert scenes between Alejandro and Isabel are giving Sicario: Day of the Soldado a layer of emotional depth that elevates it beyond a simple paramilitary thriller.
Of course, I would’ve liked Sicario: Day of the Soldado better if it wasn’t such a Trumpian, build-the-wall fantasy. I’m sure it wasn’t written with a political agenda, but even when it’s not art needs to be responsible about what it’s saying. The cartels are portrayed in this movie like invisible, ubiquitous entities that not only smuggle drugs, but also people and… welp, terrorists across the border. Remember how the boogeymen in the eighties were corner kids selling dope to your children and indoctrinating them into a life of crime and violence? That’s how the cartels are portrayed here. Maybe they’re just that, but portraying them as this invisible menace is just going to make people paranoid.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a solid and somewhat profound thriller about the human cost of the American drug war. It’s well-written, strongly acted by veterans who look supremely comfortable on screen and it’s even respectful of the aesthetic of Denis Villeneuve’s movie. But it’s a little fucked up. The narrative choices Stefano Sollima and Taylor Sheridan brilliantly committed to heightened the stakes and layered the emotional resonance of the movie, but it also makes it come off as a right wing fantasy. So, I can’t give this movie my full blessing, but I can’t quite condemn it either.