It turns out that the open, ominous ending of Sicario was not an invitation to contemplate the implications of its story, but an excuse to greenlight a sequel. A critical hit that drew stylistic comparisons to Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow—and cinched director Denis Villeneuve’s crossover bid from French Canadian art cinema to his current role as the new Ridley Scott—Sicario was a brilliantly engineered thriller whose pressurized suspense and immaculate craftsmanship barely disguised a cynical relationship to its subject matter.
Underneath the gleaming gunmetal textures of Roger Deakins’s Oscar-nominated cinematography lay rusty storytelling (i.e., having Emily Blunt’s supposedly capable DEA agent Google “cartels” like a middle-schooler researching a homework assignment), while the script’s ostensible critique of the United States’ clandestine fight against the Mexican drug trade was undermined by a clingy commitment to genre conventions and clichés. The character of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former attorney turned hitman—which cynically used him as a blunt implement against his former employers—turned out to be Sicario’s namesake while also embodying its frustrating contradictions. It’s hard to admire a film’s supposed moral complexities as its storytelling grows ever more cartoonish, and by the end, Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan sacrificed realism on the altar of crowd-pleasing violence.
Alejandro is back in the awkwardly titled Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which doubles down on his tough-guy vibe in the hopes of creating an unlikely action-franchise antihero. (Somewhere, somebody is sending a script to Javier Bardem’s agent for an Anton Chigurh spinoff that could set up the CMCU—the Cormac McCarthy Cinematic Universe.) “I’m turning you loose,” says Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), Alejandro’s American handler, and Stefano Sollima’s film follows his lead in giving the character a greater license to kill. Having previously avenged the executions of his wife and children, Alejandro is now free to operate as a kind of badass do-gooder— a freelance assassin who gets called in for those hard-to-reach targets, starting with a broad-daylight assassination that’s meant to kick-start a civil war between rival cartels. It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy that Matt says he “learned in Iraq” in one of the script’s frequent attempted nods to topicality—a Sheridan speciality.
Like a B-movie John Sayles, Sheridan is always trying to infuse regional politics into his potboilers. He’s interested in tight, closed-off communities—be they small towns or professionalized groups—and what happens when outsiders intrude upon them; his scripts always radiate with a sense of place, which is a virtue in an era of anonymous, anodyne CGI backdrops. His ability to generate grimly specific thriller setups have led to him being hailed as a strong new voice in American genre cinema, but I think he’s more of a mimic, drawing from more authentically hard-bitten writers and coming off as a copycat. (I imagine he has a note over his desk that reads “What would Jim Thompson do?”) He doesn’t exactly have a light touch as a polemicist: The Oscar-nominated heist drama Hell or High Water kept reminding the viewer that it was really about the economy, littering the frame with foreclosure signs. And Sheridan’s tendency to use minority characters as collateral damage in stories about tortured white lawmen—from Jeff Bridges’s partner in Hell or High Water to the native American rape victim whose death starts the plot of his directorial breakthrough, Wind River—hasn’t been called out nearly enough.
I’m guessing that Sheridan will catch flak for what happens in the first 10 minutes of Soldado, which begins with a title card explaining that the movie is going pivot away from drug dealing to human trafficking. Watching a movie whose plot touches on flawed immigration policies and government paranoia about incoming bad hombres (to the point where the film’s unseen president classifies cartels as “terrorist organizations”) has a certain urgency in the summer of 2018, but there’s also something borderline exploitative about how Sheridan approaches the subject of border crossing.
In Sicario, the grave, frightening opening sequence in which Emily Blunt’s DEA agent discovered a cache of corpses walled up in an abandoned housing development was rich in implication and tragedy; here, a suicide bombing in a crowded pharmacy is captured in a solemn but grandstanding tracking shot that ends with a Muslim terrorist staring down a blonde woman and her child before pulling the pin on his vest.
This scene is genuinely frightening in a way that’s meant to suggest that Soldado is not fucking around, but there’s a thin line between powerful and pandering, and this image—as well as a shot of prayer shawls stashed on the border—shamelessly stokes anxieties that a more responsible movie would at least try to interrogate.
There’s also something unseemly about how much Sheridan seems to enjoy writing scenes in which Brolin gets to torture terrified prisoners. In the aftermath of the drugstore attack, Matt confronts a suspect with a roomful of massive plastic jugs before reassuring him that waterboarding isn’t as severe as what he’s planning. Where Del Toro’s Alejandro is driven in both films by a very personal sense of vengeance—a hackneyed but serviceable motivation—Matt is a stand-in for the unsentimental necessity of American interventionism, with bonus points for sadistic showmanship. It’d be one thing if the Sicario films displayed genuine ambivalence about Matt and his methods, but instead he’s always pitted against figures—on both sides of the border, including his American superiors—who are either cluelessly naive or more ruthless, rendering him likeable by comparison (and also via Brolin’s stoic, inexhaustible charisma, which caps off an impressive summer run of deadpan bad guys).
Soldado’s most dubious move, though, is predicating its entire narrative on child endangerment. By pairing Alejandro for most of the film with teenaged Isabel (Isabela Moner)—the cartel heiress whose staged kidnapping is the second prong of Matt’s plan—Sheridan indulges in some fairly low-hanging pathos. Anyone who has seen a movie before can predict that our formerly amoral Sicario is going to develop protective, paternal feelings for a girl ripped from her parents, even if her dad is the guy who put out the hit on his own family—and even if he was last seen icing an entire household with merciless, methodical precision. Mawkishness is always the flip-side of Sheridan’s tough-guy act, and while Moner shows some chops acting opposite Del Toro, her character is never more than a device for raising the emotional stakes. The same goes for the film’s other teenaged character, rising gangster Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), whose connection to the main plot is so contrived that any attempt at social commentary through his arc from innocent high schooler to wannabe killer is rendered ineffective. (Sheridan used a similar tactic in the first Sicario with a subplot about an undercover-cop-slash-drug-mule whose fatal fate was predetermined from his first appearance onscreen.)
Ultimately, though, Soldado is Del Toro’s show and, to give credit where it’s due, he refuses to sleepwalk through a movie that is otherwise on autopilot, from Solimma’s slick, imitative direction (including a highway shoot-out that’s modeled on Villeneuve’s superior checkpoint skirmish) to Sheridan’s unpersuasive one-liners. (“A beautiful day, a blue sky, a large-caliber weapon—I love getting out of the office.”)
Seemingly ageless behind his dark sunglasses, he cuts a menacing figure without ever becoming a cartoon and even manages to make Sheridan’s most ridiculous twist work through sheer, inventive physical acting. (It’s a memorable moment at least, and the audience I saw the film with cheered loudly as it happened.) Del Toro’s stalwart professionalism mirrors his character’s own sense of duty. It’s a shame that he doesn’t have a series more worthy of him—and even more so that he’s probably going to come back for Round 3 all the same.