“Sicario” was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I have had in the past few years, and it was one of the best movies of 2015. When I heard a sequel was being made, I was excited but also a bit reserved as I soon learned Emily Blunt, Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and the late Johann Johannsson would not be returning for it. Sure, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan were back for another round, but would this be enough? Sequels at times have an immense power to sully their predecessors in an unforgivable way, and I was praying this one would not be a mere cash in.
Well, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (soldado is Spanish for soldier) doesn’t quite equal the brute force and honesty of its predecessor, but it does prove to be a very strong sequel. It also turns out there was a good reason to continue the stories of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Whereas “Sicario” was about the militarization of the police, this sequel removes the policing aspect from it to reveal an even darker and more cynical take on the war on drugs and illegal immigration.
“Soldado” gets off to a brutal start as we watch three men enter a grocery store in Kansas City and blow themselves up. The way this scene is set up quickly reminded me of the take no prisoners attitude Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” and this is made even clearer when one suicide bomber looks to spare a mother and child from certain death, and then does not. Like the original, “Soldado” is not about to offer its audience an easy way out of the harsh reality it presents here.
To combat this terrorism, which Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) defines as “violence used to achieve a political goal,” the United States government gives Graver permission to use extreme measures in combating the Mexican cartels as they are believed to have smuggled Islamic terrorists across the U.S./Mexican border. Graver makes it clear he will need to get “dirty” in order to achieve the goals laid out to him, and considering what we have seen Graver pull off previously, we know things will get dirtier than ever. Seeing Riley tell Graver “dirty is exactly why you are here” makes this scene more chilling as it shows how complicit the U.S. government is prepared to be in bending the rules, and we also know they will be quick to deny any culpability just like the IMF does in “Mission: Impossible.”
Graver decides the best course of action is to start a war between the two drug cartels, and this involves the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the cartel’s kingpins. To pull this off, Graver enlists the sicario (Spanish for hitman) Alejandro Gillick, who still hungers for revenge against those who murdered his family. The way these two handle this kidnapping is insidiously clever as they make Isabela believe they did not abduct her in an effort to mess with her head and keep the cartels fighting amongst themselves. Of course, the best laid plans are usually thwarted at the most unexpected moment.
I first off have to say how glad I am to see Del Toro and Brolin back for this sequel. Both actors have cracked and weathered faces which help to do a good portion of the acting for them as their characters have endured endless moral crises which more than shows on the surface of their skin. While many actors are desperate to look younger than their actual age, it’s a nice to see a pair who are not afraid to show the lines in their face. Besides, does it make sense to cast baby-faced models as characters who have seen more than they should in a lifetime? I think not.
In “Sicario,” we were reminded of how brilliant an actor Del Toro can be as he made Alejandro Gillick into a complex character whose soul is deeply wounded, but who still seeks vengeance on those who wronged him. Never does Del Toro have to raise his voice to show the power Alejandro has over others, and seeing him fire a dozen bullets into a cartel lawyer is a fascinating sight as he may seem calm on the surface, but there is still a seething rage which cannot be contained. Besides, when it comes to revenge, one bullet is never enough.
With Brolin, we know he can portray Matt Graver in a way few other actors can as his character interrogates suspects almost effortlessly and carries out secret missions with surgical precision. The Oscar-nominated actor continues to play Graver as a man who has long accepted the fact he has become a lot like the enemies he hunts down, and it marks another great performance from him in a year which has seen him dominate the screen in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.”
What I found especially fascinating about “Soldado” is how it examines a particular moral conundrum both Matt and Alejandro find themselves in. When their mission suddenly goes awry, the U.S. government cancels it and orders them ro erase all proof of their involvement in Mexican internal affairs. Of course, this also means assasinating Isabela Reyes, but while Matt is intent on cleaning up the mess he and his team have been caught up in, Alejandro is not about to murder her. Having seen many, many movies throughout my life, I have long since become familiar with the characters in them who are determined to do the right thing and yet end up paying a high price for this as their sins have yet to be paid off. Knowing this makes “Soldado” even more intense as I began to wonder how these characters would suffer before they would be freed from the damage they have wrought.
Speaking of Isabela, I was really impressed with the performance of Isabela Moner who makes this drug kingpin daughter a tough cookie right from the start. When we first meet her, she is fighting a fellow classmate and leaves her bloody and bruised. During a meeting with the principal, she knows he is in no position to expel her because of who she is, and that vicious look in her eyes is all you need to see who has the most power in that situation. When kidnapped, however, Moner makes her character’s predicament all the more palpable as she gets thrust into a violent situation beyond her control, and her reaction to it all feels unmistakably real. And like all my favorite young adult characters in movies, she comes to see through the bullshit adults are dishing out to her.
Directing “Soldado” is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, best known for directing gritty crime movies like “ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards” and “Suburra” as well as episodes of the critically acclaimed television show “Gomorrah.” While Sollima is unable to match the existential dread Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” he succeeds in grounding the story in the same brutal reality we were introduced to previously. Even when Sheridan’s screenplay looks to strand us in formulaic territory, Sollima makes seemingly predictable scenes especially intense as even he knows how brutal the war on drugs can be.
Taking over cinematography duties is Dariusz Wolski who is known for his work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and who gave a very special look to Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” and “Dark City.” It’s near impossible to match the unique look Deakins gave “Sicario,” but Wolski manages to equal the brutal visuals and stark landscapes to where we cannot deny this movie takes place in a reality we like to keep a safe distance from.
Then there is the film score which is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a classically trained Icelandic cellist who collaborated with Johannsson on “Sicario.” Suffice to say, the music ended up in good hands as Guðnadóttir’s has created themes which match the ominous power Johannsson gave us back in 2015, and he brings back “The Beast” theme with tremendous gusto as the harsh realism shown here feels more brutal and chaotic than ever before.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” had no real chance of equaling the original, and I accepted this fact as I walked into the theater. But in the end it doesn’t matter because what we got here is a really strong sequel which captures a great deal of the original’s intensity and blunt truths, and it makes for a compelling motion picture. There is already talk of a third “Sicario” movie, so here’s hoping this one does well at the box office to ensure this will happen. And if they can get Emily Blunt to appear in it, that would be great as well.
Granted, this sequel is coming out at an interesting time as politicians are calling for increased security at the border, and immigrants are either being denied entry to the United States because of the country they are coming from, or their children are being separated from them for political leverage. While many may point to one group of people or another as being the biggest problem America has to deal with, the “Sicario” movies show how widespread corruption is and how far it has spread. One key scene to remember in “Soldado” comes when Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager and aspiring hitman, gets a ride back across the border, and his driver turns out to be a Caucasian woman with a baby in the backseat. As Miguel pays her, she is quick to tell him, “Give me a job that pays better and I’ll do it.”
In this day and age, it is not so much the truth which matters, but of who controls the narrative.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
The filmmakers dedicated this movie to memory of Johann Johannsson who died on February 9, 2018 at the age of 48. It is a real shame we lost him so soon as his work on “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “The Theory of Everything” was remarkable, and it would have been great to see what themes he would have continued composing had he lived. Rest in peace Johann.