Within the first five minutes, Sicario: Day of the Soldado grabs you by the collar, gets in your face and doesn’t let go. It begins with a member of ISIS unsuccessfully attempting to enter the U.S. through the Mexican border. Before he can be detained, he says a quick prayer and blows himself to pieces, taking out several nearby servicemen. Soon after this incident, three men walk into a crowded grocery store, say a prayer and trigger their suicide vests in quick succession.
It’s that last sequence that eradicates any fears this will be a half-baked sequel that lives solely on the goodwill established by the first film, masterfully directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose exceptional output of late has rightfully made his absence a red flag. But with the uncompromising, painfully brusque grocery store sequence, which is elevated to another level by how one terrorist’s hesitation plays out, Stefano Sollima simultaneously rattles your nerves and calms your apprehensions. The movie blends true-crime realism with the sensationalistic macho-opera of a gangster film, complete with unspoken blood oaths and damnation arcs that play on a loop. While much of this can be chalked up to the dense writing of Taylor Sheridan, Sollima allows the script to breathe and the characters to freely inhabit the foreground. He also gives the movie a playful touch, which prevents it from ever becoming a brooding, zombified exercise in misery and violence.
“…they conspire to kidnap the ‘prince’ of a cartel ‘king,’ in order to start a war among the cartels…”
As a result of the two bombings, the U.S. government begins to believe that cartels are helping to smuggle terrorists across the border, so the government turns to their best and shadiest, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), to untangle this nest of snakes. Graver, in turn, recruits an old friend, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who isn’t the kind of friend you call to move your couch, but the kind you call to move somebody else’s couch when they’re not home. Together, they conspire to kidnap the “prince” of a cartel “king,” in order to start a war among the cartels and cause an implosion.
Despite the whirlwind of political intrigue, this story belongs to Alejandro. As great as Brolin and Emily Blunt were in the first movie, it was Del Toro’s character who demanded the audience’s attention, and that remains the case. There’s no attempt made to deconstruct or demystify Alejandro—outside of what we already know about his past—but he is, instead, presented as an amoral boogeyman, doomed to a continuing cycle of violence that he, perhaps, slightly enjoys. It’s a variation on an archetype we’ve seen before—most notably in the Western mythos—but Sheridan and Del Toro manage to reinvigorate the character for the modern world. It should also be noted that Del Toro has a steely gaze not seen since the very late, very great Lee Van Cleef. If he really tried, he could probably light ants on fire.
To spend too much time comparing the movie to its predecessor would be pointless—value is rarely found in binary contrast. However, I will say the movie is not a cobbled-together sequel, but a natural progression of the characters, themes, and tone of Villeneuve’s movie. As such, Sicario: Day of the Soldado feels fully developed and sure of itself. When it finally releases its grasp, you feel the drop back into your seat.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) Directed by Stefano Sollima. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Keener.
9 out of 10