REVIEW: ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ is Violent, Problematic and one of the Most Satisfying Sequels in Years

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Despite a deeply morose tone and overly simplistic worldview that is likely to offend many, ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ is an expertly realized thriller that largely echoes the quality of the first film and is more satisfying in many ways.

‘Soldado’ is written by Taylor Sheridan who also wrote the first film and despite a change in director, cinematographer and composer- it feels very much like the first. The closest comparison I can make is the difference between ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens.’ The first ‘Sicario’ is an engaging, brutal and often gorgeous exercise in tension. It is a drama with infrequent albeit enthralling action. ‘Soldado’ is not as finely crafted, but has much more action and consistently raises the stakes.

The film begins with a nighttime illegal border crossing where the border patrol is portrayed as an unstoppable force. Slick black helicopters cut through the inky darkness. A spotlight illuminates the desert rushing past below. When the spotlight turns on it is accompanied by an elemental booming. This is the jingoistic view of American force so familiar from films like ‘Black Hawk Down.’ This is American power as an unstoppable beast. Illegal immigrants scurry beneath the light, border patrol trucks close in. One man separates from the group and is stopped by a cliff. As agents encircle him he reveals himself to have explosives strapped to him. He says “Allah ‘Akbar” before exploding himself.

You would be forgiven for asking what religious extremists have to do with a film series that previously focused on Mexican drug cartels. You would also be forgiven for finding this film problematic as it focuses next on a craven terrorist attack in a grocery store. Three suicide bombers enter the crowded building and commit mass murder. We are not spared the image of a mother begging for the life of her little girl. We discover that the terrorists are being smuggled across the border by the cartels. Two of our greatest enemies have now become one.

In many ways you could view the beginning of ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ as a propaganda piece. With the way that it glorifies the undisputed might of American forces as well as drawing a direct line between immigration along the Mexican border to Americans being killed by terrorists, it’s not far off. As the film continues however, you see that this film is not taking a side. ‘Soldado’ is nihilistic. Everyone is bad. No one is saved. In this way, it is similar to the first film when even Benicio Del Toro’s larger-than-life and legendarily skilled assassin murders children along with cartel kings.

You would be forgiven for having too many issues with the subject matter to enjoy this film. I have spoken to many on various sides of the debate who are unable to set aside their beliefs to watch this. But for those able to view this film as a finely executed thriller, there is a lot to appreciate.

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Taking over directing duties from Denis Villenueve is Italian director Stefano Sollima (‘Gomorrah’) who delivers a remarkably well-realized narco-political thriller. For all of the moral ambiguity in Taylor Sheridan’s script, Sollima’s direction is confident and effective. As stated above with the ‘Aliens’ comparison, this is movie with a lot more action than the first. Not as concerned with world-building, ‘Soldado’ gets right to the meat of it. Using the terrorist attacks as justification, the American government decides to take off the proverbial gloves. There will be no rules this time. Returning from the first film is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) the gum chewing, Crocs-wearing task-force leader. The mission is to start a war between the cartels by kidnapping the daughter of one cartel leader and framing the other cartel for it. They will be too busy fighting each other to smuggle any more terrorists across the border. Along with an elite team of mercenaries, he also enlists the help of the shadowy assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro.)

Playing the kidnapping target Isabel Reyes is young actress Isabela Moner who is a revelation. From her first moment on screen, she shows a ferocity and legitimacy far beyond her years. She was also featured in ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ but was lost in the convoluted mess of that film. Here she is given a chance to shine and establishes herself and someone to keep an eye on. Suffice to say, things do not go as planned. Alejandro and Isabela are forced to fend for themselves in a brutal Mexican desert, surrounded by enemies. Luckily, her protector is one of the most purely-badass characters ever committed to film.

By now of course, the US government are also the bad guys. In this way, the film attempts to offend no one by offending everyone. If looked at literally, especially in today’s climate, this movie is stiflingly problematic. The Mexican desert is portrayed as a scorched badland where every passerby is a bloodthirsty murderer. The only good person our closest-thing-we-have-as-heroes is a deaf good Samaritan (and it is extremely convenient that Alejandro knows sign language.) Still, when viewed through the lens of a modern western filled with archetypal monsters of every type, it is incredibly satisfying and occasionally brilliant.

‘Soldado’ is also a beautifully shot film. The first film was shot by Roger Deakins who is almost-inarguably the greatest living cinematographer. Those are not easy shoes to fill but Darius Wolski (‘Dark City,’ ‘Prometheus’) does an admirable job. The sun-soaked desert is massive and desolately striking and nighttime glows with brilliance. In many ways this is a commercial that portends a view of the world beyond redemption and soaked in blood, but damn if it isn’t great to look at.

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This is a violent and unforgiving film. It asks a lot of the audience. It asks you to believe that the US/Mexico border is a gateway to hell. It asks you to believe that the American government would order the murder of a child to cover a mistake. ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ exists as both a red and blue state nightmare. A Rorsach test of offenses in a volatile time. It may be impossible to enjoy this film without a heaping dose of unhealthy cynicism. I enjoyed it. I loved it honestly. I don’t know what that says about me. But I would watch five more movies in this series. It hits all the marks of a Tom Clancy political thriller with the gruesome appeal of ‘Breaking Bad.’ Benicio Del Toro’s Sicario grows in legendary status, joining the ranks of otherworldly master killers like Anton Chigurh or Leon the Professional. There is a scene near the end of the film involving a grenade that almost had me on my feet cheering.

‘Soldado’ is certain to be divisive but I found it be one of the best sequels in years.

‘SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO’ IS IN THEATERS JUNE 29TH, 2018

 

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