A dark, gritty, and well-acted action drama that already feels dated.
Stefano Sollima’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado may have been considered one of the best films of the year, had it been released in 2008. Although a sequel to an Oscar-nominated film from 2015, Day of the Soldado feels like a long-ago prequel from a previous era – albeit a recent one – of American filmmaking. It is a film about the politics and violence surrounding U.S./Mexico border security, but there is no talk of a border wall, of ICE agents, of families being separated. To be fair, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan likely penned his screenplay long before the current president was in office, and the U.S. began its campaign to increase the dark militancy of its border security, but recent developments in the real world make Sicario: Day of the Soldado feel instantly dated.
Case in point: In one scene, the government bigwig character, played by Catherine Keener, corners CIA tough guy/super-soldier Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, reprising his role from the original) to explain to him the minutiae of governmental public image. She says that the (unnamed) president needs to save face and that he “doesn’t care about winning.” If there’s anything Americans know about the current president, it’s that he cares about winning.
This is not to say, of course, that Day of the Soldado is a badly constructed film. Indeed, Sollima’s assured and energetic direction is, to this reviewer’s eye, even slicker and more compelling than the comparatively mournful direction of Denis Villeneuve’s original. The original Sicario was hard-edged and dark, concerned with the way violence can erode the soul, and whether or not a soul is even needed in the complex world of ever-increasing criminal enterprise at the Mexican border. Day of the Soldado, with its well-choreographed chases, excellent photography (by Dariusz Wolski), fast pace, intense music (by Hildur Guðnadóttir), and badass gunfights, reads more like an action film than a drama. The darkness is still there, and the film climaxes with moments of intense confrontation rather than chases and large explosions, but said darkness is folded into something more forthrightly thrilling. It’s a tonal shift that works well, at least from a technical standpoint.
Additionally, the performances are great. At the center of Soldado is the relationship between ex-assassin badass Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro, also returning) and Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner) the teenage daughter of a Mexican drug lord. Gillick, along with Graver, are hired to start a war between various Mexican drug cartels so that said cartels might potentially kill each other off, easing the workload of American border security and halting the immigration industry that the cartels heartlessly control. Gillick and Graver achieve this by kidnapping Isabela disguised as a rival cartel, and then openly staging her rescue. The kidnapping sequences are exciting and brutal. Eventually, though, Gillick will point out that Isabela doesn’t deserve the constant victimization she is put through and will disobey orders to keep her safe.
Just as in the original Sicario, we will see the powerful and strong female lead put through hell, and we will witness her slow fall from grace as a result. Male soldiers, in the world of Sicario, are willing to die inside in order to do this admittedly horrible job. Outsiders will be sucked in and crushed by the moral black hole. The above drama is paralleled by the fall of an innocent teenage boy who will join a crime syndicate for semi-noble reasons and who will end up falling even further into the blackness than anyone else. It’s all quite depressing, actually.
Day of the Soldado falters, though, when one inevitably begins making comparisons to the real world. Audiences will be forced to regard Day of the Soldado as something more fantastical and speculative than any sort of comment on modern day politics or immigration. I sense the filmmakers wanted Day of the Soldado to offer overt political commentary. To reiterate, it would have felt more immediate and important had it been released eight, or even three, years ago.