In 2015 writer Tyler Sheridan and director Denis Villeneuve both securely established themselves as modern masters of their craft with “Sicario”, the first film in Sheridan’s self-penned Frontier Trilogy of thematically related films. When I heard “Sicario” would get its own sequel I was ecstatic especially since it would put the focus squarely on one of the film’s standout characters played by Benicio del Toro. I finally got to see the final product this weekend and while It wasn’t a horrible movie I can say from my perspective it didn’t live up to the original. That said though is it still worth the viewing? I’m here to fill you in. This is my review of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” otherwise known as “Sicario 2”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Sicario: Day of the Saldado” starts off playing off the modern controversy of illegal immigration over the Mexico-U.S. border. After a tragic suicide bombing in Kansas City the United States Department of Defense begins to suspect that drug cartels are smuggling something new into the United States, terrorists. In an attempt to stop the issue before it gets out of hand the DOD calls on CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to orchestrate a war between the cartels using false flag operations. To help in the mission Graver calls in sicario Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) baiting him into the mission by promising him revenge against a kingpin named Reyes who helped orchestrate the death of Gillick’s family. The mission requires the group to kidnap Reyes’ daughter Isabela (Isabela Moner) but after new evidence on the terror attacks forces the DOD to eliminate all evidence of the underground operation, including killing Reyes’ daughter, Gallick decides to go rogue to help smuggle Isabela into the United States to give her a chance at the life he inadvertently stole from her.
There are a lot of good things about “Day of the Soldado”, although they’re not enough to make it a great movie. More on that perspective later. To start it’s a surprisingly brutal film in many ways which is honestly what I expected considering the content of the first movie. The terror attacks that spark the narrative are truly uncomfortable to watch and we get to see del Toto’s Gillick in some pretty compromising positions that had me on the edge of my seat. “Day of the Soldado” offers all the action and suspense we deserved from the sequel even if it lacks the substance. The violence on screen might be brutal and hard to watch, but it feels real and the suicide bombing alone is one of the most uncomfortably raw depictions of such an attack I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Sheridan and director Stefano Sollima were unrelenting in this regard which completely drives home the tone of this movie. “Day of the Soldado” is not meant to have anything close to a happy ending that holds anyone harmless. It leaves a scar on its in-film world and the characters and honestly is not far off from the brutality of our reality. That’s what made the first movie great and it’s carried over here relatively well.
Several standout performances help make “Day of the Saldado” a delightful example of subtlety in character development. The most glorious performance comes from Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick who was a standout character from the first movie and returns to be front end center in this film. As a sicario, the Spanish version of a hitman, Gillick is a brutal machine of a human being but despite del Toro faithfully carrying over the hyper focused and dry approach Gillick has to his job from the first movie we also get to see some heart from this man who claims not to have one at all. Del Toro shows off his skills with sign language and the subtleties of his character come full circle as we get more depth from a man who thought was a heartless killer with a cause. The other standout performance for me was the child actor Isabela Moner (pictured above) who plays Isabela Reyes, the daughter of a drug cartel kingpin who is kidnapped as part of the DOD plot to spark a cartel war. Moner has to play off of del Toro through most of the film and the two have some pretty neat chemistry. Isabela the character isn’t sure who she can trust and because of her family is shown to have adapted her own emotionless and violent personality and Gillick seems to see his daughter in Reyes but has to keep his emotional distance to do his job. It’s the first time Gillick has shown compassion for a mark and the first time Reyes’ life is truly at risk because of her father. Together we see these characters evolve together and it’s impressive. This is the heart and soul of this film and sadly the main conflict that forces them together doesn’t last very long. I wish we saw more of it. Moner shows signs of being a very promising young star and del Toro owns every moment of his screen time to bring his character to life. These two performances are the best in the film and add nuance and depth to a story that very much needed some of that to even remotely match the complexity of the first movie.
“Day of the Soldado” also sports a good performance from Josh Brolin who has had one heck of a year taking on the roles of Thanos and Cable in “Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2” respectively. I mention those characters because he brings aspects of both roles into this performance as CIA agent Matt Graver, a man who we already knew was all about the mission when we saw him in the first movie and here he takes it one step further as circumstances force him to decide between his morals and orders. Like Gillick, Graver seems heartless and ruthless but we also get to delve a bit deeper into his soul as he has to make decisions that effect not only the world, but the lives of people he himself has invested in including his team and his sicario friend. Brolin is proving over and over again that he is one of the best actors of his generation and while Graver isn’t his most subtle, layered or impressive performance Brolin still brings a certain gravitas to the table that adds some spice to the project. He’s the leader and the one who puts it all together, but he finds himself forced to cleanup a mess he was ordered to create at the expense of others. If nothing else “Day of the Soldado” deserves to be commended for taking characters we were content knowing little about in the first movie and allowing them to be fleshed out in interesting and engaging fashion. It gives the movie a bit of much needed purpose although I can’t say it was enough to truly make it feel like a warranted sequel.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
In the end “Day of the Soldado” was a frustrating movie for me because it just never reaches the same height or quality of its predecessor. The first film was filled with delightfully choreographed and shot visuals, subtleties in the story and was a unique and tasteful project about the drug cartels and their involvement in U.S.-Mexican relations. Without Denis Villeneuve behind the camera and with less focused writing from Sheridan this followup film feels all over the place in terms of pace and lacks the nuance of its predecessor in many ways. The film takes way too long to get to the point and felt like several different storylines meshed together that don’t always blend well into each other. It goes from espionage, to war and then focuses more on the protective reformed hero of the innocent but the transition isn’t smooth, and the cinematography tries to be artistic but it’s just not. That’s not to say Stefano Sollima is a bad director nor that his crew fail completely at their job. It’s just not nearly as good as it should have been considering the movie it was following up. It does fine as a generic action thriller. In fact, it’s actually an above average or even great film when compared to others in its league. However, the point is it deserves to be in a higher league of movies but it’s not. “Day of the Soladao” has glimmers of greatness but also stalls way too often to fully cash in on everything that makes it fun and watchable. To put it simply this sequel is merely a good, fun action thriller when it should have been something a lot more memorable.
Part of this has to do with the movie’s lack of purpose. Yes, I gave the film credit for delving deeper into the personalities of characters we saw in the original, but that in itself is not enough to make “Day of the Soldado” feel warranted. Not by a long shot. It truly doesn’t feel like this sequel has an reason to exist from a story perspective except to possibly set up a third movie. Even the setup of the narrative is extremely contrived playing off of the xenophobia of modern day America to use terrorism as a means of starting a war between the cartels. The movie backtracks on this halfway through and makes the entire conflict feel pointless and contrived. It’s really difficult to simply ignore the plot holes in the story. Why would the Department of Defense start a war between the cartels before IDing the terrorists and knowing for sure they were smuggled in? And if they weren’t smuggled in then why did we see them sneaking across the border in the first scene? There are so many more interesting and better ways to justify the actions of the DOD and soldiers in this movie and leaning on terrorism was not the way to go especially when you make that whole issue a moot point by the end of the second act. It’s textbook pandering. This above all else frustrated and ruined this movie for me. It felt like a forced narrative to justify the sequel and there’s not even an ounce of effort to try and hide the ridiculousness of the setup and plot. It’s made only worse by uncharacteristically bland and unfocused screenplay by Sheridan. I won’t go so far as to call it uninspired because the dialogue is great and there are signs of much better stories and directions in this movie with several good ideas obviously left on the cutting room floor. But any of those ideas could have made for a much better flick than what we got. Thank God the actors added something to this film because without them this would have been nothing more than a bottom of the barrel summer thriller.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is one of those sequels destined to be divisive. Some have called it an ultra-violent thriller worthy of viewing and others question why it exists at all and I have to agree with both of these perspectives. This sequel has its moments, many of them in fact, which are driven by great performances and character development as well as the brutal violence that doesn’t feel over the top for the sake of shock value. However, the story is also all over the place with questionable pacing and too many plot holes to count. I can’t say this sequel was fully warranted, but as a fan of the first movie I truly wanted it to earn its existence. What it comes down to for me is the setup to the events and how they play out feel ridiculous and contrived which in turn makes everything that happens after the first moments nothing more than forced conflict that could have been avoided with even the smallest amount of common sense from the character on screen. “Day of the Soldado” is an entertaining movie that has some substance to offer and rises above more mediocre action thrillers of the time, but it requires a suspension of disbelief that I personally just could not invest in. Despite great performances and admittedly fun action sequences as well as some noteworthy brutality, this film doesn’t even come close to reaching the heights of the first movie and fails to fully justify even being made. I’m glad it was made, but in the end I was left with nothing to make me feel like I couldn’t have lived without it. So, I could take it or leave it, but I lean more toward taking it if for no other reason than the gripping performances and the possibility and promise of something greater still to come.