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Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a soulless shell of its predecessor

The movie wants to be subversive. But it doesn’t know how.

Benicio Del Toro and Isabela Moner return for Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
Some of the cast from 2015’s Sicario return for Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Depending on how you’ve been interpreting the news for the past few weeks, Sicario: Day of the Soldado has either perfect or abysmal timing. In this sequel to the 2015 film, Mexican cartels are smuggling contract killers and violent criminals across the border. After someone blows up a department store in Kansas City, most people assume the perpetrators came across the Mexican border. So the US government puts the cartels on its list of terrorists and declares war.

The movie isn’t ignorant enough to declare a facile, soundbite-friendly solution like a wall to be an answer to the problem. But that’s only because this is a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and in his movies (including the first Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River) there are no solutions — just grim realities and occasional pauses. In Sheridan’s renderings, the vast American West has all the brutality and might-makes-right trappings of older Westerns, but without the suggestion of justice that often accompanied those stories.

All of which could have made for a good and even necessary film. The complexities of the issues at the US Mexican border are unusually central to national conversation right now. But Sicario: Day of the Soldado is weirdly weak, more of a knock-off than a sequel — and most definitely a wasted opportunity.

Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Donovan, and Benicio del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Donovan, and Benicio del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Sicario: Day of the Soldado loses the emissary we needed to enter its violent world

The biggest problem with Sicario: Day of the Soldado, written by Sheridan and directed by gritty crime drama veteran Stefano Sollima, isn’t hard to spot right off the bat. The original film (directed by Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve) gave us an inroad into a complicated and constantly shifting landscape in the person of agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who was our proxy in the story — a smart but naive character who slowly came to discover the full horror of the way matters of drug trade across the border were really settled.

But Kate is gone now (and so is her partner, who was played by Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya). The main focus has shifted over to the two men who spent most of the first film either yelling at her or refusing to explain what was going on: government “consultant” Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), whom the secretary of defense (Matthew Modine) enlists to solve the problem, and his preferred and apparently indestructible operative, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).

With those two men at the helm of this story, it’s even more brutal and violent than the first. But it’s also missing the center of gravity that anchored Sicario. We had something horrific to discover alongside Kate, who was hardly a shrinking violet to begin with. Now we’re at a curious remove from the story, watching people plot and plan and brutalize.

To figure out a way to shut down the cartels’ ability to smuggle people in and out, Matt devises a plan to pit them against one another by kidnapping the daughter (Isabela Moner) of one of the kingpins and letting them think it’s the work of a rival cartel.

It is wearying to see yet another film like this in which women mostly exist either to say clueless and ineffectual things (in this one, that character is played by Catherine Keener) or to be collateral damage in the machinations of violent men. It’s also more than a little exhausting to see another movie in which most of the nonwhite characters are treated as expendable figures rather than people.

As with the early (and totally unnecessary) scene in which terrorists blow up the department store (one muttering an “Allahu akbar” right before blowing up himself, a mother, and a little girl), these characterizations aren’t wholly fabricated, and the movie can reasonably cover itself by saying that the problem isn’t in the story, but in the violent, nihilistic machismo of the real people and situations on which it’s based. Plus, Alejandro is himself Colombian, which is a good if somewhat stock way of complicating the matter.

The issue isn’t that these representations are necessarily inaccurate, but that they’re too easy. There are more than a few places in Sicario: Day of the Soldado where you can see the plot point coming from a mile away, right down to the line of dialogue. It’s inexcusable for a movie that tries to say daring and surprising things about a very urgent matter of cultural and political importance to be so thuddingly predictable in so many places.

Josh Brolin in a scene from Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Also, there is fighting underground.

There’s another issue. The first 10 minutes of the film is a riot of images, some of them powerful, all of them memorable and highly provocative: people being run across the border, explosions in a department store, an Islamic terrorist detonating a bomb as a mother pleads for her child’s life. Later, the film tries to subvert the expectations it sets up in those scenes (including our understanding of who the bombers actually were). It wants to criticize and challenge the mindset it sets up early on.

However, in cinema, words are powerful, but images are much more powerful. And the critique comes briefly, and mainly in dialogue, not images — lines tossed off in the course of a scene once we’re caught up in the action. So what stays with you is the idea that we see, in the images of thousands of violent Islamic terrorists crossing the border, not the spoken rebuttal of that idea later. If you want to criticize prevailing ideas about something as controversial as policing US-Mexican border — let alone Islamic extremism — in a film, you’re going to have to understand and harness the true power of the medium. But this film never does. It feels suspiciously like like Sheridan’s screenplay wants to have both have its cake and wolf it down: violent machismo and reactionary explosiveness, later papered over by a dose of wokeness.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado maintains the shell of its predecessor, but doesn’t know what to do with it

To say that images are powerful shouldn’t be mistaken for high praise of how this movie looks. The first Sicario was shot by Roger Deakins, who finally won his first Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 last year and is indisputably one of the greatest living cinematographers. It looked stunning, with colorful vistas that threw the inky darkness of silhouettes and jagged rocks and mountains into sharp, menacing relief. Those shots were the movie in microcosm: beauty and terror, without a clear sense of which was winning.

Benicio del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Benicio del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado

No such luck with Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which looks like the filmmakers watched Sicario and then tried to imitate it with drone shots and some bright colors. That means the moral import of those rough-hewn landscapes are gone, too. It’s an imitation that doesn’t understand the soul of the artistic choices it’s mimicking.

That is a handy cipher for all of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which still looks like a Sicario movie and acts like one and talks like one. It has all of the violence and moral ambiguity, too. It has many of the same characters, and the same basic concern, though this installment swaps out drug smuggling for human smuggling.

But it’s missing its predecessor’s sense of ambivalence and helplessness. For the most part, its characters are set in their ways before they even show up on screen, and though there are some brief gleams of humanity — Alejandro’s care for the kidnapped teenager who, like Kate in the previous film, seems to remind him of his murdered daughter — for the most part they start out as stock tortured antiheroes who seem trapped in a Sisyphean loop. And end the film the same way. There’s no reckoning with what that really means in the two hours in between.

If you’re going to boot Kate out of the story and leave in Matt and Alejandro, then you owe it to those characters to access the richness that’s possible when you drop two stock characters into incredibly complex situations. The possibilities for exploring morality, justice, ethics, otherness — things the Western has always been interested in — are ripe for the picking.

But Day of the Soldado leaves them on the tree. It’s not clear to me whether Sheridan’s worldview prevents him from thinking things like justice and goodness really can exist, or whether he simply thinks they’re not worth addressing in the characters’ journeys. Either way, that worldview makes for flashy, blood-drenched cinema, which is just what Sicario: Day of the Soldado is. That can be fine for a while. But eventually, you may start to suspect that beneath all that dust and gore and apparently timely plotting is an echoing chasm with nothing to say.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado opens in theaters on June 29.