It is possible that in my preparation for reviewing “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” I made a mistake. That is, it ought not have been an error, but it certainly hampered my enjoyment of the sequel to the 2015 version of “Sicario.”
What, precisely did I do? I went and watched the 2015 film.
That movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Taylor Sheridan, offers an incredible look at the drug war straddling the border between the United States and Mexico. We see it unfold through the eyes of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who has to contemplate compromising her principles when she is tasked to a team headed by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his right-hand man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).
“Sicario” succeeds in large part due to the character of Macer. She is the audience’s proxy in the film. She is the one who questions the line between right and wrong, good and evil. We watch her slip further and further down the rabbit hole as the mission progresses and see her start to wonder about whether that line might be moved.
Macer is not in “Day of the Soldado,” and there is no suitable proxy. The result is that the film focuses more heavily on Graver and Alejandro and softens their edges in an attempt to get the audience to associate better with the characters. The greater familiarity does the characters no favors whatsoever. It is the police/crime thriller equivalent of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
I say the movie “softens their edges,” but it might be more accurate to state that both characters are quite different here than what we saw of them in the previous film. It doesn’t feel like a difference borne out of getting deeper inside them either, but rather one caused by the fact that they are fundamentally different human beings. Sheridan is back as the writer of this film and can, presumably, speak to the transformation of the characters, but there is little given the audience as to how and why their choices in this film are so radically different from what we have seen before.
Taking a step back, this tale, rather than focusing on the shipment of drugs, is concerned with the shipment of people across the border (via the same drug cartels). There is a move amongst portions of the U.S. government to put the brakes on such transit, hence the appearance of both Graver and Alejandro.
This offers “Day of the Soldado,” which is directed by Stefano Sollima, a “ripped from the headlines” feel, but also bills the problem as larger, for decades, than the drug war itself. Whether true or not, such a statement causes one to wonder why it wasn’t remotely a focus in the first film. It is less an upping of the ante than seemingly an admission that they went for a “sexy” story the first time out but are now getting down to the nitty gritty. It also lends the sense that by the next film we’ll be told again that the actual problem on the border is something else entirely.
As far as the mission to stop individuals from crossing the border, I would be lying if I said the film made it clear. Graver acknowledges early on that it would be a bad idea to have multiple small cartels spring up across Mexico rather than dealing with one larger one, but then proceeds to kidnap the daughter of the head of one of the cartels, Isabel (Isabela Moner), in order to, apparently, cause a war between the cartels. Why that wouldn’t have the potential affect of destabilizing the large cartels and ending up with smaller ones is never explained.
This is a plot put into motion solely for what feels like the sole purpose of being able to have another “Sicario” movie. The twists and turns it gives along the way are not particularly good with one of the bigger ones resulting in understandable, vocal, pockets of disbelief amongst the audience at the press screening. It isn’t a twist, it’s a bit of foolishness which takes the movie from the, supposed, real world into the land of superheroes. The problem doesn’t stop with the twist either, but everything that follows for the character in question feels not implausible, but rather impossible.
The moral complexity of 2015’s “Sicario” is entirely thrown out the window with “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” In its place we are treated to a brainless action film which is unwilling to accept the truth of its nature and insists on masquerading as something far more intricate. Whether it is attempting to fool the audience or just itself is unclear. Some of the action is quite good, although here too it never matches the intensity of the previous entry.
It is probably a better idea just to stick with one’s fond memories of that film than to follow Graver and Alejandro in another adventure.
photo credit: Sony Pictures