Hot take right off the bat: Sicario is one of the best movies of the 2010’s. Denis Villeneuve’s sure direction powered the 2015 thriller to some haunting heights, showing the grey area that comes with fighting against rather unsavory forces. Namely, the Mexican cartels. As a whole, it’s a master class in creating tension, especially from how intense each of the characters are in the way they interact. Sicario: Day of the Soldado, on the other hand, is a different story, and it speaks to a larger issue with studios that are so hungry for franchise potential that they fail to understand the standalone film that came before.
We All Need More Emily Blunt in Our Lives
Emily Blunt is one of my favorite actresses working today; she’s also objectively one of the best. Her performance in Sicario is perfect, exuding the right amount of vulnerability to go along with her “deer in the headlights” look at she slowly discovers why she was chosen for the mission led by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick. By the end of the movie, you can feel the amount of pain and exhaustion she has. Her disposition changes from a hungry operative that wants to right a wrong to a frail introvert that can’t wait to leave the mission and go hide somewhere.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado was right to leave her out of its narrative. When we leave her in Sicario, she’s a broken woman. She has started smoking once again and has a fresh bruise from both Jon Bernthal’s attack and Josh Brolin’s reprimand in the dusty trenches near the border. One could say that’s she defeated — you wouldn’t be wrong if you made that assertion.
But Day of the Soldado misses a similar mindset — someone who acts as the moral compass. The sequel is tough as nails, probably one of the more self-serious movies of 2018 (if not the most self-serious), but it doesn’t have a beating heart.
The Growth (Or Lack Thereof) of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro’s Characters
For different reasons, Brolin and Del Toro’s characters aren’t exactly sterling examples of humanity. In Sicario, Brolin is a tough, brazen individual. At first, he appears as a somewhat likable character. He smiles to Emily Blunt in their meeting together following the horrific explosion at a nondescript home in Arizona. He even asks rather thoughtful questions of Blunt in a kind manner as he looks to gather more information about the situation at hand. However, we quickly learn that it’s merely a front and he’s simply using Blunt to further his jurisdiction in fighting cartel activity. Alejandro, while undoubtedly mysterious at the beginning, has a similar progression in his motives coming to light.
Alejandro unquestionably has a kindness to him — he’s merely trying to avenge the deaths of his family by aiding Graver’s team. Still, these two resort to essentially being criminals themselves in the way in which they go after the cartels. Graver doesn’t care about what you perceive as the law, he wants to get the job done…no matter the cost. Alejandro is enacting the sort of Old West justice that we’ve come to love in our gritty action thrillers…except those movies (well, the good ones at least), have some understanding of right and wrong. That’s why his character works so well in Sicario.
And what is there to stop these morally compromised individuals from giving in to their id in Sicario: Day of the Soldado? Well, nothing really. They’re free to roam and pillage as they desire. The only thing stopping them is the occasional appearance from Matthew Modine as the secretary of defense in the few days of shooting that he was on set for. Legislation moderately dictates their movements, but even then, Matt Graver still decides to splatter the brains of a few cartel members all over the dusty highway after emerging from his helicopter. When the sequel has reached its end, you’d be grasping at straws if you said that either of these characters changed in the slightest or had their convictions challenged by something other than the muzzle of a gun.
Kate was always there in the first film to question these two, to go head-to-head with them every chance she had. If you ask me, the interpersonal squabbling was the best part of Sicario. It was a battle of wills and viewpoints — the gritty action merely stemmed from those tense moments. Sicario: Day of the Soldado has no opposition, no character that stands up against these two men and says “hey, that’s not right!”
It’s not even a matter of agreeing or not with Kate in the first film, but the fact that her stance is present allows for a greater discussion of border patrol and defense against organized crime to take place. Not to mention it humanizes cartel members and refrains from gross stereotypes. There’s an incredible amount of nuance, a strong feeling of cynicism in that no matter what path you choose or which people you kill, terror will rear its head once again. It’s like Hydra from Captain America lore, except it has legitimate ramifications for the future of millions of people. Day of the Soldado loses sight of that discussion big time, losing the sensitivity that such a subjects requires. It’s actually quite shocking that the film came from writer Taylor Sheridan, the same writer as the first film, given his beautifully crafted and morally strong scripts in his ‘American Frontier Trilogy’ (Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River).
Sicario: Day of the Soldado Isn’t the First Sequel in a Franchise to Suffer this Fate
There’s an overarching question surrounding this sequel: why was this made in the first place? That question is a good one, and I’m not so sure I have an answer to it.
I don’t want to come across as thinking that some kind of Sicario 2 is a ludicrous idea; I actually think there was a great story to tell that centered around the Alejandro character. Yet, Day of the Soldado has sequelitis written all over it. It has a much more substantial budget, more gunfights, more blood, and arguably more of a visceral impact — all in combination with a new distributor in the United States (Sony). Still, the original Sicario leads the way in one specific area: subtext.
Plenty of other franchises have gone this way too — the Rambo, RoboCop, Halloween, Alien, and Evil Dead franchises come to mind as others with sequels that really changed course — with varying degrees of success. Especially with Sicario: Day of the Soldado, it feels like those involved didn’t watch the first film.
Dollar signs surely became a deciding factor in green-lighting this movie (but then again, was Sicario really that big of a financial success in the first place). The first sign comes from the silly subtitle. I mean, “Day of the Soldado?” Why not Sicario 2: Electric Boogaloo or Sicario: The Desolation of Smaug while you were at it? Better yet, just name it Soldado (that name is used for the film in some territories around the world — they’re the lucky ones). The title is so obviously a ploy to profit off the Sicario name that it sickens me. The entire experience with the film is perplexing for that matter, doubling down by whimping out on a third act so as to leave the door open for more stories in this world. The first Sicario was art, Day of the Soldado is a commodity.
Stefano Sollima is a Director to Watch Moving Forward
Contrary to what you might think from reading thus far, there’s a lot to like in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Director Stefano Sollima proves to have a great eye for visuals and a very strong understanding of tone and tension. And while I feel they’re misplaced in the grand scheme of things, the shoot-outs and other set pieces are incredibly well-shot with active camera movements and limited cuts. He even gets fantastic performances out of the main players, especially Benicio Del Toro and the young Isabela Moner. With a better script, Day of the Soldado might have truly been a haunting, grisly experience.
I’m excited to see what Sollima does next. But as for what’s next in the Sicario franchise, I’ll give it a pass if it stays down this path.
I’m not mad, Sicario 2, I’m just disappointed.
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