REVIEW: Sicario: Day of the Soldado [2018]

Score: 4/10 | ★ ½


Rating: R | Runtime: 122 minutes | Release Date: June 29th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Stefano Sollima
Writer(s): Taylor Sheridan

“Not ‘they'”

There’s a reason for Emily Blunt‘s character Kate in Sicario. She’s the last vestige of law and order on the frontlines of a war that relinquished both long ago. Her FBI Agent believed in what she was doing and felt she could make a difference in the field to combat the drugs, bodies, and weapons spilling over the US/Mexican border courtesy of the cartels. So when two “DoD consultants” came calling to recruit her for a covert mission targeting someone of value at the top of the food chain of which she’s been picking through scraps, there was no alternative but to jump. But as we discover Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) aren’t quite who they say, we realize law doesn’t apply.

That’s why she’s crucial as the single piece of this complex and nihilistic puzzle worthy of earning our empathy. Despite the world crumbling around her, Kate fights tooth and nail for justice regardless of who she must get in trouble to acquire it. There’s three-dimensionality built into the character that Blunt masterfully augments via a phenomenal performance taking her through a series of authentic effects in response to unexpected causes out of her control. This doesn’t mean Graver and Alejandro are less important or that Brolin and Del Toro are less effective in their roles. Their “boogeymen” are just here to provoke mayhem. They exist to give Kate pause and force her to decide between integrity and futility—if she even can. They’re monsters and she is not.

So what does screenwriter Taylor Sheridan do when crafting his sequel? He removes her and everything she stood for from the equation. He complies with the Hollywood machine that bestowed plaudits upon Del Toro’s stoic badass working out his grief with blood-soaked hands and turns Alejandro into his focal point. But Sheridan has forgotten that most of what made the character so captivating was the mystery behind and uncertainty of his motivations and identity. Without him being the ghost for Kate to glean details about, he becomes a two-dimensional sociopath like everyone else mired within a game that’s gradually revealing itself as having no end. Now he’s a “good guy.” He’s Graver’s hired gun creating chaos once more, but also somehow finding a line he’s unable to cross.

And that’s where Sicario: Day of the Soldado lost me. By no fault of director Stefano Sollima since the finished work looks and feels fantastic, it’s Sheridan’s loss of the big picture that does it in. Just because we feel for Alejandro’s loss and accept what he does at the end of the first film doesn’t mean he’s redeemable. What’s more: the way he acts with pure, remorseless vengeance against those who murdered his wife and daughter means everything he does this time around feels incredibly false. Just because he saw his little girl in Kate doesn’t mean he should see her in the target of the State Department’s Cynthia Foards’ (Catherine Keener) black ops assignment. Alejandro shouldn’t see Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) as human a worth saving.

But Sheridan needs a story and all he has are boogeymen. So despite introducing them with the same flippant aversion to morality we remember, Graver and Alejandro are positioned as righteous. It’s as though Sheridan felt the animosity America feels towards its current leadership’s disregard for life and decides he can use our hate to turn an abstract agenda into the enemy. He lazily transforms Sicario‘s placeholders for that policy into casualties of it, pushing Graver and Alejandro until backs are against the wall and simply following orders is no longer enough. And their resulting individual crises of conscience prove utterly hollow. We’re asked to root for a man sad his bosses ordered the death of the killing machine he created—not brown people as a general rule.

Whereas the first film moved step by step with an unpredictability that fostered an uncontrollable sense of anxiety (besides the ham-fisted vignettes of a police officer playing soccer with his son that we know will eventually find himself embroiled in the overarching firefight to come), Soldado is nothing but convenience and coincidence. It wants to deliver another “innocent” dragged down into the cartel game via high schooler Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), but Sheridan is too impulsive to isolate his storyline like before. Not only does he cross Alejandro and Graver’s path prematurely, he also quickly reveals himself to be far from innocent. He’s a pawn to manipulate trouble for our antiheroes and set-up an explosive moment that moves from redeemably bleak to an unforgivable shark-jump of moronic fantasy.

The plot: turn two cartels against each other while also allowing Alejandro payback through the seemingly simple act of kidnapping Isabel Reyes (daughter to a cocaine king). But that’s thrown away when an impromptu ambush turns the girl from asset to liability. From there its: “Watch bad men uncomfortably stew in the consequences of their lifestyle choices.” Sheridan adds a deaf man (Bruno Bichir) to open an emotional wound in Alejandro that falls flat and forces Graver to watch helplessly as the one person he cares about above duty is hunted down. It’s military porn with overwrought second-guessing and utilitarian shot-calls starting with Muslim suicide bombers (and a mother inexplicably moving her daughter closer to the blast) before ending with an Antichrist rising from Lazarus’ pit to imaginary applause.

Everything is broadly orchestrated without anything close to the shocking surprises Kate confronted three years ago. Del Toro and Brolin are very good, but neither of their characters has been fleshed out beyond the memorable yet stereotypical foils they were originally written to play. The superficially shallow backstories learned in Sicario are all we have to work with and yet we’re supposed to care about what happens to them? Sorry, no. All I could do was pick apart why their actions went against everything we knew about them. Where Sheridan hoped to inject humanity, he only reinforced how laughable Alejandro and Graver having humanity is. What’s worse is an epilogue intentionally reminding us about their evil. So what was the point? I really want to know.


photography:
[1] Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: Day of the Soldado PHOTO BY: Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP
[2] Isabela Moner stars in SICARIO: Day of the Soldado PHOTO BY: Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[3] (l to r) Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Donovan and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: Day of the Soldado PHOTO BY: Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP

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