Sicario: Day of the SoldadoReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/28/18 19:57:50
The original “Sicario” (2015), you may recall, was a slick and brutal thriller following a quasi-legal U.S. government task force charged with bringing down the Mexican drug cartels by using means as ruthless and unforgiving as those employed by its targets. The film did have some good things going for it—a couple of major action sequences that were thrillingly staged by director Denis Villeneuve, a haunting score by Johann Johannsson and ace cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins—but even at its best, it was never the Great Movie that it so obviously ached to be nor did it ever come close to comparing to the crime epics of Michael Mann that so obviously inspired it. Although it did receive a lot of good reviews and even scored three Oscar nominations, the film was not exactly a box-office smash and therefore, it came as a bit of a surprise when it was announced that a sequel was on the way. Now, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” has arrived and while some of the key players from the first film have returned, including co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, the aforementioned Villeneuve, Deakins and Johannsson are not around for this go-around (the latter at least has an excuse, having passed away earlier this year) and their absence can be keenly felt throughout this long, grim and at best vaguely topical potboiler. If the first “Sicario” wanted to follow in the footsteps of a Mann classic like “Heat,” this one is more like an episode from the final season of “Miami Vice”—whatever ingenuity it may have once possessed has long since evaporated as the filmmakers crank up the violence in the hopes that no one will notice.This time around, the focus has shifted from drugs to human trafficking as we learn that the Mexican drug cartels are now making tons of money smuggling people, including terrorists from other lands, into the U.S. After a group of terrorists who have blown up a crowded Kansas City grocery store (yes, we get to see it all and yes, a crying mother and child get blowup really good) are found to have entered the country this way, the U.S. government decides to reclassify drug cartels as terrorist groups, giving them more leeway towards hunting them down and eliminating them, even on foreign soil. The trick, however, is to do this in such a way so that the U.S. does not seem to have any direct involvement in whatever legally dubious measures are employed to pull this off. Put in charge of this task force is CIA operative Matt Graver (Brolin), who is given carte blanche to tear things up and he, in turn, brings in Alejandro (Del Toro), the one-time prosecutor-turned-assassin that Graver turned loose in the previous film with the opportunity for him to kill the man responsible for the murders of his wife and child a few years earlier. Luckily, one of the key targets this time is the infamous Carlos Reyes, the drug lord who turns out to have been the boss of the person responsible for the deaths of Alejandro’s wife and child, so he gets a chance to avenge them a second time—everyone’s a winner.
Their idea is to surreptitiously stir up shit among the various Mexican cartels and then stand back and watch them destroy each other. The plan is to slip into Mexico, kidnap Reyes’s feisty 12-year-old daughter Isabela (Isabela Moner) in broad daylight, make it seem as if a rival drug gang was responsible for the crime and spark a war between them. At first, the plan seems to be going smoothly, although Isabela is smart enough to intuit that something about her abduction and subsequent “rescue” seems a bit suspect, but things inevitably go south (no pun intended) and result in a whole lot of dead bodies and Alejandro and Isabela separated from the rest of the team. Once Graver and the rest of his team return to the States, the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine, never a good sign) and his key flunky (Catherine Keener) inform him that the program is over and that the one remaining loose end—Isabela—needs to be taken care of. However, Alejandro has unexpectedly bonded with the daughter of the man who destroyed his family (once removed) and refuses the order, electing instead to try to smuggle her across the border by using the same harsh and exploitative system as so many others have before.
Since immigration and terrorism are among the hottest-button issues in the real world today, it is tempting to look at “Day of the Soldado” as a sort of metaphorical equivalent to the old crime films that Warner Brothers cranked out in the Thirties with storylines pretty much ripped from the headlines of the day. Sheridan’s screenplay for the first “Sicario” had a little bit of this going for it that helped to keep things from descending into an orgy of senseless violence and bully-boy bullshit but none of that has made its way into his script here. This one essentially feels like a compendium of cliches from any number of hard-bitten cop dramas in general and the previous film in particular—we hear a lot about how things are “personal” for Alejandro this time and how he and Graver are operating without any rules but since those very things were stressed ad nauseam the first time around, the impact is somewhat lessened this time around. Additionally, the vague traces of humanity that the first film possessed (mostly in the form of Emily Blunt’s character, who is never seen or referred to here) that helped to somewhat leaven the overwhelming sense of cynicism is much missed here—although the story pays lips service to the casual cruelties that the cartels dispense against anyone who gets in their way but the film itself seems just as disinterested in them as it displays far more interest in blowing off than getting into the heads of practically all the Mexican characters on display. Rather than building on what was accomplished with the first “Sicario,” “Day of the Soldado” feels as if Sheridan merely yanked a previously written script out of a drawer, changed a few names here and there and decided to offer it up as a follow-up.
What makes this especially frustrating is that there is a B story involving a Mexican-American kid (Elijah Rodriguez) who lives right next to the border and is slowly being pulled into the world of human trafficking with the promise of fast cash and power. An entire film could have been spun around this character that could have explored the issues of human trafficking, immigration reform and border security in a far more compelling and realistic manner than the one presented here. Alas, doing that would have deprived viewers of such one-of-a kind sights as Josh Brolin grumbling sarcastic one-liners in a gravelly voice or Benicio Del Toro starting to regain a little of his humanity (though not enough to keep him from shooting dozens of people in the head) after spending time with his charge and making the bold decision not to murder her. Brolin and Del Toro are able to keep the proceedings moving along to some degree based solely on their pure professionalism but you always get the sense that they, along with Modine and Keener, are just going through the motions here. The only other performer besides Rodriguez who shows any real commitment to the material is Moner, who is quite good as the victim of the ersatz kidnapping and offers further suggestion that a tougher and smarter movie might have resulted if the two kids had been brought to the forefront and their better known co-stars had just stayed back at the “Avengers” set.“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is a mean, ugly and unpleasant work that theoretically wants to explore the depths that some people will go to make a buck, the depths that other will go to stop them from doing so and whether any of them, having done the things that they have done, can ever come back from the darkness. In practice, it seems to have nothing more on its mind than upping the staggering nastiness quotient established by its predecessor and executing it in a slick and utterly impersonal manner. (Even the aforementioned grocery store bombing seems less like an integral part of the narrative and more like a cheapo way of topping the carnage from the opening sequence of “Sicario.”) There may be some people who will try to suggest that this film, with its combination of sheer brutality, off-the-charts machismo and cynical tone, is mean to suggest a contemporary equivalent of the works of the late, great Sam Peckinpah. Yes, there are some surface similarities to be had here and there but I can assure you that in terms of artistic craftsmanship and moral/ethical authority, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” cannot hold a candle to any of them and yes, that includes “Convoy.”
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