2015’s Sicario was a bone-rattling, nightmarish look at a new American frontier. Although it was ostensibly about crime between the U.S. and Mexico border, the film looked at the limits of the law and the lengths people will go to achieve their objective. It was a clever way of using a physical border as a starting point for an exploration about personal limits and what happens with those limits are stripped away. Unfortunately, instead of building upon these ideas, the sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, is able to replicate the bleakness of the original but never builds it into anything more. The story, while unpredictable, lacks focus, drowning us in a sea of amorality until characters start making moves that don’t jive with their previous behavior. In some ways, Day of the Soldado is darker than Sicario, but it’s darkness without purpose.
The movie opens by noting that human trafficking is big business for the cartels at the border. This big business has led to four terrorists infiltrating the U.S., and, in a horrific scene, going to a department store in Kansas City and blowing themselves up. The U.S. believes that the drug cartels have facilitated this attack, and now they want those cartels to go to war with each other. They call in Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to run the operation, and Matt in turn calls in his old partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to make it look like the cartels are attacking each other. The escalation eventually gets to kidnapping Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel kingpin, but when returning her goes sideways, it puts Matt and Alejandro into conflict.
Director Stefano Sollima is able to evoke the original Sicario despite having different pieces in play. He’s got talented cinematographer Dairiusz Wolski (Alien: Covenant) in for Oscar-winner Roger Deakins, and he has a brooding score from Hildur Guðnadóttir in for the late Johann Johannsson. The sequel feels in line with the original, and yet that only serves to highlight where the new movie falls short, particularly with regards to the story.
The new film desperately needs a character like Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer, someone with a firm point of view to help navigate the chaos created by Matt and Alejandro. Without that character, you just have two guys wreaking havoc and believing the ends justify the means. Without a counterbalance, the movie devolves into bloodshed upon bloodshed without any organic character growth or conflict. The decisions Matt, Alejandro, and other characters decide to make feel random and like they were done to move the plot forward rather than something in line with their previous actions.
This means that Soldado builds up on violence, brutality, and bloodshed, but in service to nothing. When you see that the movie isn’t really going anywhere, or that characters are making decisions that seem random and unearned, then the brutality feels cheap and done for shock value. We give the terrorist act at the beginning of the movie the benefit of the doubt because we assume, based on the first movie, that this horrific violence is leading somewhere. But by the time you reach the end of the movie, you see that Soldado has built to nothing but a few dark thrills.
Day of the Soldado isn’t a bad movie in that it’s well-crafted and well-acted, but it’s also deeply disappointing. It’s almost like screenwriter Taylor Sheridan misunderstood the appeal of the first movie (which he also wrote) and assumed that what people wanted was more darkness and bloodshed. That darkness and bloodshed was the effective setting of the first movie, but it’s not the endpoint. It’s the beginning for where his protagonist goes. He doesn’t have that in Soldado, so it’s just people being violent and then they make choices that strain credulity. We’re supposed to believe that Matt and Alejandro suddenly decide to become less ruthless even though ruthlessness is their defining characteristic. Ultimately, Sicario: Day of the Soldado ends up drowning in the darkness it hopes to navigate.