Film Review – Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Sicario (2015) was a masterful thriller made in a post 9/11 world. With Denis Villeneuve’s keen direction, Taylor Sheridan’s focused writing, and Roger Deakins’ impeccable cinematography, the film was a white-knuckled suspense ride. It examined the blurred lines of morality, where characters compromised their beliefs and the ideas of right and wrong became ambiguous. The key piece of it all was Emily Blunt’s character. She was the heart and soul of the story, acting as an emotional counterpoint to Josh Brolin’s special ops agent and Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious hit man. The combination of all these elements working together made it one of the best films of its given year.
The sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), pales in comparison. Gone is Villeneuve (replaced by director Stefano Sollima) and Deakins (replaced by Dariusz Wolski). Sheridan returns as the screenwriter, but this time around the focus and intensity that made the first film so fantastic is missing. Since all of the themes were fully explored previously, what’s left is a shell that looks and sounds similar but feels empty. Not only does it fail to expand the original installment’s ideas, it actually retracts them. Where the violence in Sicario was done as a way to comment on the viciousness of chaos, Soldado presents it simply as a means to shock. The sight of explosions and bullet-strewn bodies is meaningless here.
One of the best sequences of Sicario was the border crossing scene, in which a convoy of armed guards escorted a prisoner from Mexico into U.S. territory. The sequence was suspenseful because Villeneuve understood that the tension lied in the potential of a gun being fired. The action itself only lasts a few seconds, but the anticipation of it seemed to have lasted for minutes. Unfortunately, Sollima does not have a deft enough hand to garner the same kind of high wire act throughout Soldado. There’s plenty of gunplay, and Wolski does an adequate job of capturing some striking photography (one scene involving helicopters chasing two speeding vehicles down a road was stunning in how realistic it felt). But Sollima doesn’t allow the set pieces to build to a crescendo, and thus they come and go with little resonance.
If Soldado proves anything, it goes to show just how important Blunt’s character was. She stood against those that would rely on illegal methods to accomplish a mission, regardless of how fruitless that position might have been. Because she is no longer in the mix, we must rely on Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro (Del Toro) to guide us through the plot. The problem is: Graver and Alejandro work better as supporting characters, not leads. They are the ones we are supposed to be philosophically opposed to, but because they are brought to the forefront Sheridan must come up with a reason for us to stick by them.
This time, we learn that Mexican drug cartels are smuggling terrorists across the border. Opening scenes feature a number of suicide bombers detonating themselves in public spaces. As a response, government officials give Graver and Alejandro the green light to do whatever they must to disrupt the cartels’ operation. Their chosen path: kidnap the daughter of a Mexican kingpin (Isabela Moner) and stage it as though a rival cartel was responsible. Things get convoluted once the girl is brought onto U.S. soil. To avoid all out war, Graver and Alejandro are ordered to return her back to Mexico. This creates the main point of narrative tension, where Graver insists on bringing the girl back but Alejandro feels she would be safer in America. This makes for an interesting premise, but because the writing lacks the razor sharp clarity of the first entry, the dynamic between Graver and Alejando did not intensify as the plot progressed. The narrative seemed to forget that it had a promising disparity between these characters and thus never took advantage of it.
In these modern times, where the political debate regarding illegal immigration has reached a boiling point in the social consciousness, Soldado does not feel so much timely but more so irresponsible. This is most seen in the character of Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a young man who acts as a drug runner for the cartels. We learn very little about this person outside of his profession. He crosses the border, smuggles drugs in exchange for money, and has hints of wanting to become a hit man himself. We are not given any insight into his motivation – Why does he do this? How did he fall into a life of crime? Did he choose this for himself or was he forced into it? Despite being one of the main characters and inhabiting a good chunk of the runtime, Miguel is a one-dimensional character teetering on a cultural stereotype.
I don’t think I’ve seen such a dramatic drop off in quality from a first film to a second in a very long time. Sicario is arguably a masterpiece, working exceptionally well in all facets. Day of Soldado is a meandering mess, with plot threads leading to nowhere. It doesn’t tell its story with urgency. Instead of waking us up and making us aware of the importance of what it’s trying to say, it settles back and turns into another forgettable action picture.