One of the last movies I would have expected to see a sequel from is 2015’s Sicario, a drug cartel drama about an FBI agent played by Emily Blunt who becomes disenfranchised with the semi-legal operations she becomes part of during anti-trafficking efforts at the Mexican border.
While Sicario featured some outstanding filmmaking courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve, I didn’t fully buy into the Blunt character’s arc, and in particular a blurry night-vision finale left me cold. But it was a fully-rounded story that seemed to leave little room for a follow-up.
So here’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which drops the Blunt character and almost everyone else from the first movie save for Josh Brolin’s shady government mercenary Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s titular character.
Without a central character to act as some kind of moral compass, as Blunt provided in the first movie, Sicario: Day of the Soldado widens the scope to detail the bigger picture of the drug trade and US efforts to combat it – and disreputable practices on both sides of the border.
To get there, a convoluted premise (from screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the first Sicario movie and directed Wind River) details the unlikely journey of Islamic terrorists across the Atlantic by boat to Mexico, where they are smuggled across the border by cartel henchmen and end up blowing themselves up in supermarkets.
The U.S. government is prepared to label the cartels as terrorist organizations – opening up new avenues of dealing with them – and Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) recruit’s Brolin’s Graver to organize a strictly off-the-books mission to destabilize their positions in Mexico.
The plan: kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), daughter of one of the country’s most powerful drug lords, and frame it on a rival cartel. The goal is to start a war that rivals US operations in the middle east, with the cartels at each other’s throats and Mexican civilians caught in the crossfire.
Graver recruits Del Toro’s hitman Alejandro to help him out – with the promise of revenge on Carlos Reyes, the drug lord responsible for the murder of his family – along with a team of mercenaries that includes right-hand man Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), also returning from the first Sicario.
But while Graver and his team can handle themselves, they aren’t prepared to to combat authorities that include Mexican police working for the cartel and their own bosses in Washington, including Catherine Keener’s Cynthia Foards, who give orders that are just as grim.
Sicario 2 also deftly weaves in the story of Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez) a rising Soldado (soldier) in the cartel world working as a coyote for Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) by delivering immigrants across the border in the dead of night.
While Brolin and Del Toro make the biggest impression here – and even get the chance to display a shimmer of humanity underneath their no-nonsense exterior – Hernandez and Moner are both extremely effective depicting the kind of youths drafted into opposite ends of the cartel world.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado was directed by Stefano Sollima, who worked on Italian TV’s Gomorrah and made the similarly-themed (and similarly excellent) Italian mafia film Suburra.
Sollima’s work here isn’t as taut or suspenseful as some of Villeneuve’s in the previous movie – there’s nothing here that matches that film’s standout caravan sequence on the U.S.-Mexico border – but he’s a better match to Sheridan’s material, crafting a bleak and ominous film that resolves nothing. And leaves the door open for future films in the franchise.
In that regard, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a tight and unrelenting feature that represents a minor improvement over an already-good movie. We may not necessarily want to return to this world, but we know it still exists out there.
Note: numerous scenes in Sicario: Day of the Soldado are in Spanish, subtitled only in Czech in Prague cinemas.