SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO: An Empty Sicario Shell
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is an empty shell of a flick, one that tries to emulate the success of the first but lacks all the components that made it so brilliant.
When it was announced that a sequel to 2015’s Sicario would drop Emily Blunt’s main character, shortly followed by the exiting of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, I worried. Easily the three most important elements of the film’s success, alongside Taylor Sheridan’s scorching script and the late Johann Johansson’s pulsating score, it seemed that a follow-up was already launching on a dodgy footing. How does Sicario 2, subtitled Soldado (or, weirdly, Day of the Soldado in North America – you do you, guys), hold up then? Was the shake-up beneficial to the saga, or do we long for those we have lost on the way?
After a devastating terrorist attack, the US government gives CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) the green light to take extreme measures to combat the Mexican drug cartels suspected of transporting terrorists across the border. Bringing in hitman Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) with the clearance to play dirty, the team put a plan in place to start a war between the cartels to wipe each other out, involving a child kidnapping. With Stefano Sollima taking directorial reigns and Catherine Keener, Isabela Moner and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo joining the cast alongside returnees Del Toro and Brolin, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is not only a disappointing follow-up but an underwhelming film in its own right.
I was willing Day of the Soldado to prove me wrong and render my initial scepticism unnecessary. After a brutal, gut-clenching and promising opening ten minutes that suggest a more savage Sicario sequel is on the cards, any remnants of the first film’s brilliance soon evaporate in front of your very eyes, increasingly so as the minutes tick by. What was a potent, sophisticated exploration of the US-Mexico border and relations now becomes an on-the-nose and inflammatory probe at the cartels, one that lacks the emotional fibre and heart that made the first so enthralling.
Too focused on the future rather than the present
Many would suggest that it was Taylor Sheridan’s return that clenched their interest in the sequel. Having gifted us the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water and the even better Wind River between Sicario flicks, hope rested with him to continue the saga in a natural, exciting way – despite the losses along the way. Unfortunately, this is his weakest, most scattered and unfocused screenplay by quite some distance, one that lacks his usual skill and balance of narrative and character.
Day of the Soldado strikes me as a film made up of two different scripts at war with one another, spliced together with a struggle: on one hand we have the complex, narratively-dense opening half that creates too many subplots it ultimately loses sight of; and on the other we have a character-driven piece that talks the talk, walks the walk (there’s a lot of talking, a lot of walking but little else) and barely develops either character by the time the credits roll. My gut tells me that Sheridan’s done a decent job and that the film’s inconsistencies and jarring tonal change are the effects of tinkering executives more focused on expanding the Sicario saga.
But that notion dismisses the problems with the actual content of the script. Gone is the moral complexity and compass (also known as Emily Blunt’s Kate) that made Sicario a layered experience for grim, testosterone-heavy violence that flunks the politics and becomes just another face in the genre crowd. There’s nothing to set it apart anymore. It’s entirely needless and manages to say nothing new; and what it does say borders on xenophobic at times, with a pervading nastiness that makes me fear for its consequences. It uses pure shock value to elicit fear and hate, with a horrifyingly realistic opening sequence used only to segue more freely into the main body of the story.
It has major trouble knowing how to present characters, willing you to champion them despite the horror of their actions; it tries to be ambitious and encourage you to choose a side, but when you’re selecting between the lesser of two evils, it’s not difficult to think something’s gone terribly wrong on the way. Matched with clunky dialogue we’ve rarely experienced with Sheridan’s writing, and the most infuriating ending of any major release this year so far, and Day of the Soldado’s script is as thin as the paper it’s written on.
“Script is as thin as the paper it’s written on”
Del Toro and Brolin’s attempts are noble and they are reliably solid here but held back by a script that gives them so little to do once we hit the plodding second half. Del Toro’s Alejandro lacks the intoxicating ambiguity he was shrouded in during the first film, but does continue to demonstrate the inner turmoil plaguing his character well; it’s fairly nuanced, too, and despite some of the most clunky exposition and character-building of the year, works in spite of the script’s flaws. Brolin snarls and snipes, but without a character as layered as Kate to counteract and counterbalance his aggressiveness, his character serves little purpose and it’s difficult to root for him. That goes for most of the characters, really, and it’s ironic that in the half of the film that tries to develop these characters that everything comes to a standstill.
New additions to the franchise are of little use; Keener’s Cynthia Foards is employed for the film’s strong female touch but her character’s impact is so non-existent that she could be written out entirely and the narrative would look no different; Elijah Rodriguez’s Miguel is set up as a vulnerable, groomed teen whose storyline fails to develop into anything substantial until the filmmakers force it to, in a completely strained manner that undermines everything the narrative thread could have represented. Meanwhile, the filmmakers’ decision to portray Isabela Moner’s Isabela as spiteful and bitter to start with makes it difficult for us to empathise with her, as she’s dragged through a horribly convoluted mission that’s ultimately forgotten when the narrative goes hurling off a cliff at the mid-point.
There are times where Day of the Soldado is rather well-constructed. There are some great, singular moments: the convoy shoot-out is intense, as is the kidnapping in the opening third of the film. Peppered across are some fine moments that could be the pillars of a strong movie. But the pervading nastiness of the film is a difficult pill to swallow and it never comes together, as a whole, well enough or in a remotely engaging manner.
Stefano Sollima and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski point the camera at a sunset and hope for the best, and it does begin to evoke the original Sicario initially; but you can’t help thinking that, this time around, it lacks a whole lot of depth. It’s shallow and relies on quirks of the original to prop up a weak sequel. Hildur Guðnadóttir has stronger success channelling Johansson’s score — they worked together on Mary Magdalene and his influence has worn off on her – although it doesn’t quite drum up the intensity of his artwork and is used a little too excessively at times to truly wring the most out of.
In Summary: Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado
Soldado is an empty shell of a flick, one that tries to emulate the success of the first but lacks all the components that made it so brilliant. The second film in this Sicario saga is half feature-length, half extended preview for whatever comes next; having been so underwhelmed by Day of the Soldado, I’ll struggle to be enthused by a theoretical third chapter. It’s nihilistic for the sake of being nihilistic and lacks any grounding that could help cultivate an emotional core to anchor yourself to. All narrative momentum is halted when the filmmakers decide to focus on character development in preparation for Sicario 3, but there’s nothing there; it borders on empty and bores in the process, as well as feeling tone-deaf and just plain nasty at times. Way to play it, Soldado.
What did you make of Day of the Soldado?
Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is out now in the UK and US. Additional territories’ release dates can be found here.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.