A few years ago I had the privileged to see a film that quickly became one of my favorites of all time. Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was a film unlike any I’d ever seen before. An incredibly dark adult thriller that looked at morality, justice, and the divide between legality and ethics, all while delivering one of the most tense and affecting films I’ve seen in years. It was a masterpiece, and a film that earned me an immense amount of respect for Villeneueve, the film that cemented him as one of my favorite creators working today. And, perhaps best of all, it was an incredibly self-contained film. It wasn’t based on anything, it didn’t really leave itself open to a massive franchise, it was just a solid piece of cinema. But, it was a success, which means that Hollywood needed to figure out how to squeeze more profits from it. Which meant that it would be getting a sequel. Villeneuve wasn’t available, or seemingly interested, in going back to the world of Sicario, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan was, so production began on a sequel of sorts. The first film followed a protagonist played by Emily Blunt as her entire sense of the world was shattered when she met two shadowy government assassins played by Josh Brolin and Benecio del Toro. Blunt was the driving force of the film, but Brolin and del Toro’s character ended up stealing the show, so they were made the protagonists this go around, telling the further stories of two morally bankrupt killers and their exploits in the deadly world of Mexican drug cartels. It seemed like a strange choice, and one with the high potential of completely missing the point of the first film and becoming a strange right-wing fantasy where Americans just shoot Mexican people. And, guess what? It kind of did!
Day of the Soldado begins after some escalating terror attacks on the United States. It begins when a man attempting to cross the border kills himself with a grenade, and becomes much more worrisome when a group of men kill themselves and dozens of people in a store in Kansas City. It’s enough to push the United States governments to reclassify the Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations, allowing them to use the full brunt of the military on them. But, this proves to be a worrisome prospect, so the government decides to bring in a professional with experience in toppling regimes. Matt Graver is given almost total freedom to do whatever’s necessary to turn several of Mexico’s largest cartels against one another, making it easier for the US Government to destroy them. He builds up a team, and reunites with Alejandro Gillick, a former attorney whose family was murdered by the cartels and has now devoted his life to killing them. Together they come up with a plan to destroy a cartel run by Carlos Reyes, the man responsible for the murder of Alejandro’s family. They find that Reyes has a daughter named Isabela who goes to school in Mexico City, and they devise a plan to kidnap her and frame another cartel for it, causing a gang war.
And, that stage of the plan goes off without a hitch. They abduct Isabela and stage a fake rescue as members of the American military, helping convince her that it was a rival cartel who kidnapped her. They then move onto the next step of their plan, bringing Isabela to America. However, in the process they run afoul of the Mexican Federal Police, and a firefight ensues. Graver’s men slaughter the Mexicans, but in the process lose Isabela. Alejandro offers to stay behind and find Isabela while Graver and the rest of the team return to America, where they find even worse news awaiting them. The slaughter of the Federal Police has become international news, and the Administration has decided to end Graver’s plan. And, in the process, they decide to disavow Alejandro, and order Graver and his men to find Alejandro and kill both him and Isabela so there are no longer any witnesses. But, before they can do that, Alejandro and Isabela begin making plans to escape Mexico. Isabela has come to terms with the horrors of what her father’s business has done, and seems open to fleeing Mexico with Alejandro, and the two make a plan to cross the border with coyotes. Unfortunately, it turns out that one of the coyotes, a boy named Miguel, saw Alejandro with Graver earlier in the movie, and knows that he’ works for the government. So, the coyotes force Miguel to shoot Alejandro in the head, and kidnap Isabela for themselves. Graver and his men then attack the coyotes, and take Isabela back, deciding to put her in witness protection instead of killing her. And, against all logic, Alejandro survives the bullet to the head, and we see him after a year of recovery seemingly recruiting Miguel to become a Sicario, an assassin for a cartel.
I can’t help but feel disappointing by this film. I had serious misgivings that a sequel to Sicario could ever work, especially one that put Graver and Alejandro in the lead roles, and those misgiving proved quite accurate. This sequel is a let-down in just about every way I can imagine. The direction isn’t as well-done as Villeneueve’s, the cinematography is missing the visual poetry of Roger Deakins, the plot lacks all of the subtlety and depth of he first film, and even the music is just a pale imitation of Johann Johannsson’s score. Benecio del Toro puts in a terrific performance as Alejandro, just like he did in the first film, and I really though that Isabela Moner was great as Isabela, especially considering her history as a Disney performer. And, really, it’s not that this was a bad movie. It’s actually fairly solid. A C plus. But compared with the original film, it’s just a failure. Sicario was one of the most innovative and arresting cinematic experiences I’ve had this decade, and to walk away from this film just feeling like it was adequate was a huge let down. It ends becoming a draining film, one that doesn’t seemingly misunderstood everything that made the first film work.
And I think the primary drive of what made this film fall apart was the fact that they chose to focus on the wrong characters. Graver and Alejandro weren’t the protagonists of the first film. They were mysterious forces of nature that arrived in Emily Blunt’s life, and shattered it. We followed around a woman who was idealistic, and perhaps a little naive, about the way the world worked. And then these two monsters arrived, destroyed her life, and went on their merry way. It was film that looked at the ugliness of the world, and showed us how easy it could be to fall into the same depraved worldview of Graver and Alejandro, where people are expendable and it’s perfectly fine to be immoral. They do their best to destroy Emily Blunt, but she remains herself, even if her eyes have been opened to the ugliness of the world. And this film doesn’t get to do that. Instead we focus on a pair of awful men doing awful things, without anyone giving a dissenting opinion. Isabela comes the closest to fulfilling Blunt’s role in this film, but even she doesn’t push the film far enough. Instead we’re given a cavalcade of ethical dilemmas, without an opposing side. It’s all just misery, nihilism, and cynicism. It’s an unpleasant slog, featuring no moral center, and it just ends up feeling like a draining exercise in misery. Yeah, the world is full of people like Graver, who are willing to watch it burn for their own gain. To believe otherwise would be foolish. But the first film at least gave us some hope, the idea that if we all gave into this worldview things could never be better. But this film doesn’t do that. It’s just a dark reflection of everything bad about humanity, with no opportunity to hope for the better. And it just makes for an incredibly unpleasant experience.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado was written by Taylor Sheridan, directed by Stefano Sollima, and released by Columbia Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk