Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

I really enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 hard-edged thriller ‘Sicario’, a lot more than I expected to (which thankfully also happened with his ‘Blade Runner 2049’). It’s a straightforward cops-in-deep flick that somehow transcends the expected trappings of the genre; through natural performances, gorgeous cinematography, and deliberate pacing. There’s some very mature work on display, both onscreen and behind the camera, and I found it to be a breath of cinematic fresh air when I first saw it. That being said, as much as I like and admire that film…I wasn’t left with a burning desire to see more…by no means do I mean that as a Negative. It seemed self-contained and self-confident enough to stand on it’s own, rather than give birth to another action franchise that starts off beautifully (think ‘Die Hard’) and over time cheapens to the point of sickening embarrassment (think ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’), simply for the All Mighty Buck$. Then I got wind of ‘Sicario 2: Soldado (the original title…which I far prefer), and wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It easily could’ve been a studio cash-grab (probably still was), but the majority of the first cast was returning, so that had to say SOMETHING. These are first-class thespians we’re talking about here, so I imagine they had some kind of confidence in the project…or just a REALLY binding multi-picture contract. I always felt that ‘Sicario’ was Emily Blunt’s film, as we follow her “Kate’ down the Rabbit Hole into the thick of ‘taking the fight to them’ against the ruthless Mexican cartels along the Arizona / Mexico border. But it made sense to have the sequel follow the intriguing characters of CIA Agent ‘Matt’ (Josh Brolin) and government-sponsored vigilante ‘Alejandro’ (Benicio Del Toro). These two dudes severely added to the tense quality of the first film and I found myself wanting to know more about their dynamic, as they’re both pretty dark and mysterious fellows…who’ve clearly developed an understanding and acceptance about the lethality of their professions. So finding out that the second film in the (now) proposed ‘Sicario Trilogy’ was going to focus on another ‘cloak and M4’ mission featuring these two bad-asses definitely had me intrigued.
‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ opens on the Texas / Mexico border, as a group of illegals are intercepted on the US side by an overwhelming force of Border Patrol agents. In the confusion of the raid, a Middle Eastern terrorist, hidden among the migrants, detonates a suicide vest…and promptly gets the cartels moved up on the list of National Security threats to the good ole US of A, due to the possibility of terrorist infiltration through Mexico. This scenario isn’t helped by an admittedly gut-wrenching terrorist attack in a supermarket not far from the border (given all the evil shit we hear about these days, it was almost too real). ‘Matt’ (Josh Brolin) is called out of an anti-terrorist mission in Africa by a pair of vengeful American bureaucrats, played by Matthew Modine (‘Full Metal Jacket’) and Catherine Keener (‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’). They green-light an off-the-books mission to spark a war between rival cartels, in hopes of having them erode their own ranks from within. To help with this task, ‘Matt’ brings ‘Alejandro’ (Benicio Del Toro) into the fold and a plan is worked out. After staging a lethal hit on a cartel to framing another, they decide to up the ante. They execute a snatch mission and kidnap the 13 year old daughter of their main target, again hoping to pin the blame on another cartel. But things go south when their Mexican police escort, for a key part of their plan, reveal their true loyalties, ambushing ‘Matt’, ‘Alejandro’, and their support team of covert operators. After news of the massacre by US forces of Mexican police officers on Mexican soil hits the airwaves, Modine and Keener pull the plug and in their desire to cover their asses, order the kidnapped girl ‘disappeared’. They also order the liquidation of ‘Alejandro’ too, who’s escorting the girl cross-country to the border for extraction. As ‘Matt’ reluctantly plans the interception of his friend and the juvenile target, ‘Alejandro’ improvises to try and get them both to safety.
This is one of those sequels that really, truly didn’t need to happen…but it did. And it’s actually pretty good. Italian director Stefano Sollima does a very good job of maintaining a visual continuity with the first film, which is smart, given that Villeneuve’s signature style is REALLY on-point in ‘Sicario’. Just before I left to catch a 1pm show and after all my domestic shit was done, I plopped down and discovered that ‘Sicario’ is on Netflix (I have yet to add it to my Blu ray collection), so for the sake of this review, I watched it again. And clearly so did Sollima. He’s almost spot-on with the wide-angle, long-shot aesthetic that was so mesmerizing about the first one. The music was another area where ‘Sicario’ shines, in the effective use low, ominous tones to bolster mood and tension. This score is very similar, so if the dread-filled tunes from the first movie worked for you, you will be well-served here. As with the first flick, ‘Sicario 2’ is a violent movie, telling a violent story. The action and blood-shed isn’t shown in a slick, ‘Hollywood’ fashion, with dramatic music and slow-mo left, right and centre. Instead it’s quick, brutal and loud…and I stress loud. Some of the gunfire carried the same sort of ‘punch-in-the-gut’ intensity that I got out of the Sound Design from ‘Den of Thieves’ earlier this year…and I always get a kick out of that! There’s a lot of Good in this movie…but there’s also some Not So Good. There’s a couple story elements that I thought were poorly handled. One was the initial ‘problem’, that being the infiltration of terrorists through the US’s Southern Border through the machinations of the Mexican drug cartels. But in fairly short order, that becomes a moot point and the flick rolls on without ever really going back to it. it would’ve been cool if the cartels took a back-seat this time around to the terrorist organizations who were using them for their own nefarious ends. The first movie focused on the cartels, the second could’ve been a different international criminal element and so on. But then again, if the main focus is to be the cartels specifically for the duration of this proposed trilogy…well, that’s cool too. It just felt like an intriguing plot-line just got dropped. There’s also one MAJOR coincidence / plot convenience involving the dramatic handgun execution of a key character…that is undone by the flimsiest of odds. Also, not long after this was a scene where a seriously wounded character manages to hike MILES through the desert in just the right direction, in seemingly no time at all, to come across a truck full of gunned down cartel members that no one happened to find yet, on the side of a desert highway. This could’ve been the result of either a lazy script or editing, but it stood out to me.
All in all, ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ is a perfectly worthy follow-up to the unusually good first film. Is it a sequel that we needed or asked for? Not that I know of. But it’s the one that we got…and it’s just fine. It gives us more of what people liked in ‘Sicario’, while also expanding (a bit) on some of the returning characters, in a film style that successfully emulates that of the first. The action is gritty and fast, backed by competent, patient editing, along with a robust sound design. The cast is expectedly solid and effortlessly carry over their ‘characters’ from the first film, giving validity to this flick’s place in the now pre-established ‘Sicario’ universe. If you liked ‘Sicario’, I’m confident that you’ll get a kick out of ‘Soldado’ (still the better name!). That being said…I don’t think a trip to the theatre is REQUIRED for this one. Yes, the cinematography is often beautiful and some of the action looked great on The Big Screen (those Black Hawks were awesome!), but I think most casual views will be perfectly content checking this one out either on disk or streaming.

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