I envy no film tasked with being the sequel to an out and out masterpiece, but I figured that with such a concession in mind, and the brutally talented Taylor Sheridan back behind the keyboard, I’d find something to enjoy about the ridiculously titled Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Unfortunately, the second entry in this unlikely franchise left me wanting. Granted, there’s a lot of admirable craft on display, and a few of the beats really pop, but all of it is derailed by a pervasive feeling of “what the hell is the point of this?”
If I were to venture a guess, 2ICARIO carries the same thematic concerns as its predecessor. Namely that when using violence as a political tool, there are no clear cut heroes or villains. And with the original film exploring this concept with such thorough, clinical mastery, one wonders why we needed to dip back into a now empty thematic well. With nothing new to say, the film almost feels antithetical to what’s been put forth by Denis Villeneuve’s take on the concept – the characters become gross; the violence becomes fetishistic. It’s certainly shot well enough, and in the moment, the utterly brutal action beats evoke excitement, but the “why” of it all looms large, and at a time where border tensions are ubiquitous to the daily news cycle, it all feels a bit ooky.
All said, it’s easy to pinpoint exactly how 2ICARIO falls off the rails. First, we no longer have an audience surrogate like we did in Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer. It was through her eyes that we were able to explore the murky morality inherent to the drug war. It was through our own personal codes that we could either cheer or lament her descent into moral flexibility. There is no such character in 2ICARIO, and as such it’s tough to get on board. We know that the good guys aren’t necessarily good, and the bad guys aren’t necessarily bad, so we just sit back and watch them do awful things for a while. Not really my thing outside of exploitation films.
Secondly, our leading men Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) were not designed to carry a movie. They were secondary characters for a reason. So to retroactively place a movie on their shoulders only highlights the fact that their bones hold only the meat of a supporting character. Furthermore it highlights just how different both Graver and Gillick are his time around (and in not in a “because they’ve been through so much” sort of way so much as a “oh shit, we’ve actually gotta try and characterize these guys now” sort of way). So it goes.
The criticism of Taylor Sheridan’s writing style is one that, although I disagree with it as a liability, is certainly accurate. The dude writes brooding, aggressive thrillers that, with less artistry behind them, could easily find themselves at home in the beefy action flicks of the Reagan 80s. Fortunately, Sheridan has exercised enough tact that his depictions of sweaty leading men never register as advocacies of their behaviors. However, when sequelitis befalls his style, it really does start to feel that way. So if anything, 2ICARIO’s limitations may just be a product of that. It’s an entirely unnecessary film, and it never stops feeling like it.
Set perhaps a few years after the original film, we find our, uh, heroes in a different version of the same battle. A handful of terrorist attacks occur, and it’s found that these terrorists entered our country via the Mexican border. The drug cartels have discovered that smuggling people is much more lucrative than smuggling narcotics, and this results in our government being permitted to classify drug cartels as terrorist organizations. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) sees this reclassification as an opportunity to expand his reach, and hires Graver to promote unrest amongst the cartels so as to destabilize the area. The old Middle East special. Graver warns that things might have to get dirty.
“Dirty is exactly why you’re here.”
Graver brings Gillick back into the fold and at some point Catherine Keener and Shea Whigham show up just to remind us that a much better movie would have given them something to do. What follows reminded me of a Bourne movie, in that it consists of action sequences punctuated by official looking people communicating through computer screens, pushing a plot that is ultimately of little import (the difference being that unlike the Bourne movies, the action isn’t completely unintelligible). At one point, oh, about an hour into the movie, Graver is tasked with “tying up loose ends.” What is implied is that he will need to potentially kill Gillick. At this moment I thought “Finally! This is about to get interesting!”
But it doesn’t. This plot thread is abandoned almost as quickly as it’s introduced, and it’s back to brooding in the sand. For shame.
A side plot involving a teenager preparing to enter the cartel trade fizzles in comparison to the adjacent story from the original film. Even so, it’s the most interesting aspect of 2ICARIO. If deeper thematics were to be explored, it would be through this character. Instead, he’s really just used to set up a potential third entry (which the filmmakers have hinted at, and I’d certainly go see).
Here’s the thing: this isn’t an outright terrible movie so much as a pointless one. Our director, Stefano Solima, and cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski have created a beautiful film. There are many striking images, and on a beat by beat level, the action positively thrums. The music by Hildur Guonadottir evokes the same pulsating, guttural distortion of Johann Johannson’s score on the first entry (on which she collaborated as a solo cellist), while also establishing her as an original musical voice. She had massive shoes to fill in that regard, and does so flawlessly. The sounds she strangles out of her cello are the stuff of nightmares, and in a world where female composers aren’t very common, it’s exciting to anticipate the work she will produce in the future.
But despite the considerable craft, Sicario: Day of the Soldado falls short. At best, it’s the type of movie which, had it not the unfortunate circumstance of existing in the shadow of a masterpiece, would make for passable late night action fare on HBO. At worst, it’s a troublingly tone deaf non-meditation on border politics that isn’t nearly as smart as it thinks it is.
Sicario: Day of the Soldad opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.