“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” Movie Review


     There’s no question several interesting story ideas have been marinating in Taylor Sheridan’s  mind over the years, particularly after he arrived on the scene virtually out of nowhere with scripts for the critically acclaimed “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016), the latter of which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  I felt strongly enough about “Sicario” to place it at Number 2 on my 2015 Ten Best Film list, lauding the film for Benicio Del Toro’s tour de force performance as the title character, as well as the creative work behind the camera courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Interestingly enough, many of the people responsible for the success of “Sicario” are not back for the sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”, which looks to continue the story told in the first film while expanding on Del Toro’s mysterious hitman, Alejandro.

     Taking over for Villeneuve and Deakins are director Stefano Sollima and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski respectively, but are sans the services of Emily Blunt, as well as composer Johann Johannsson who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.  You could make the argument the impact of the visuals supplied by Villeneuve and Deakins, backed by Johannsson’s haunting score, in the first film are virtually irreplaceable.  Add to that the missing emotional presence of Blunt’s character and performance, and you would rightfully wonder why the studio moved forward on a sequel.  Of course, Sheridan is on board once again, providing another gritty take on the material, this time featuring Del Toro and Josh Brolin’s CIA spook Matt Graver as the leads in a story focusing once again on the brutal nature of the drug war going on daily at the U.S. - Mexico border.

     There are certain aspects of “Day of the Soldado” that seem curiously by the numbers.  Terrorist attacks on American soil are linked to one of the most notorious Mexican Cartels, putting the U.S. Government on its heels as a fearful American public wants answers and a swift response against those responsible.  And the timing of such a storyline couldn’t be more topical when you consider the ongoing immigration debate brewing within our country today and the arguments that side with this very possibility when determining the consequences of who we let cross our borders.  It’s not long after these attacks we see Matt Graver (Brolin) being summoned to the office of the Secretary of Defense to discuss options for potential retaliation.  And given the nature of Graver’s job description and line of work, it’s not difficult to predict exactly what direction he will go.

     Essentially, Graver is given permission to start a war between rival Cartels.  Doing so will pit their soldiers against each other, rather than allowing them to be deployed for various forms of mischief in the United States.  That’s the theory anyway.  To accomplish the mission, Graver contacts Alejandro (Del Toro), who seems to be his go to when it comes to this sort of operation described in the film as “dirty”.  And a plan to kidnap the daughter of Mexico’s most well known drug kingpin, Carlos Reyes, while blaming the deed on a rival, is just the kind of task Alejandro and Graver are well suited for.  It’s at that point, you can see Sollima attempting to create the tension and atmosphere of the Juarez sequence in “Sicario” by staging the ambush of a convoy carrying Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) with the same precision and bravado, and a less effective score provided by Hildur Guonadottir.  It’s one of those sequences that had it come first, the level of suspense may have been adequate, but when it appears in a sequel, thus stripping it of originality, the scene simply doesn't measure up.

     And that’s where the predictable nature of the story moves into high gear, as a series of scenes where Alejandro and Isabel form a notable bond indicate exactly where the third act will go when the higher ups, including Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and his underling, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), order Graver to cover his tracks when the operation goes south.  For a while, it sets up an interesting game of cat and mouse between two men whose aptitude at this sort of thing makes them the top choices when the government needs something taken care of without the mess that comes with an all out war. Problem is, for all of the ability both Sollima and Wolski show in being able to carry on the look and tone of the first film, the emotional core supplied by Emily Blunt is sorely missed and the Isabel Reyes character who is written in to take her place doesn't resonate the same way, particularly given the fact she is the farthest thing from innocent and seems to display many of the same traits her father likely does.  In other words, it’s not important if she lives or dies.

     With talk of a third film already in the works, it would behoove Sheridan and the filmmakers involved to consider a story in which Blunt finds herself mixed up once again with Graves and a now potentially rogue Alejandro, who could certainly be in line to wreak havoc on the U.S., given the events of “Day of the Soldado”. Something the final scene in the film is a likely indication of. And sure, the sequel hits many of the right notes throughout, but all of them are expected ones, robbing nearly every scene of anything resembling the kind of white knuckle tension the “Sicario” filmmakers so expertly created.  Fortunately, there seems to be plenty of story left to be told, and with this being the case, hopefully everyone will be invited to the party next time, both in front of and behind the camera.  GRADE: C+