In 2015’s Sicario, the characters played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro were menacing enigmas, government agents of nebulous provenance who ignored protocol, morality and decency in their pursuit of dubious goals, leaving Emily Blunt’s upstanding FBI agent in the dust—and on the hook for their misdeeds. In the new sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Blunt is gone, and so is the moral compass represented by her character. Instead, Soldado is a surprisingly generic thriller that recasts Brolin’s Matt Graver as a sort of low-key Jack Bauer type, a steely badass who does whatever it takes to get the job done, and Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick as a hitman with a conscience, both overly concerned with the welfare and safety of a teenage girl.
The plot is also not as compelling this time around, even though it’s laid out pretty plainly from the start, as opposed to the inscrutable narrative progression of the first movie, with the audience knowing only as much as Blunt’s Kate Macer ever did. It’s a convoluted story about the U.S. government’s covert efforts to destabilize Mexican drug cartels, so that they’ll be too busy fighting with each other to focus their resources on combating new U.S. military operations to defeat them. On the surface, it’s another story about the futility of fighting an endless, shifting battle against illicit drug trafficking, but in practice it’s just another mediocre thriller about badass American agents taking down dangerous Mexican criminals.
Unlike the streamlined, contained first movie, which stuck almost exclusively to Kate’s perspective, Soldado takes a more expansive view, opening with terrorist attacks by suicide bombers on American soil, and traveling to Somalia, Djibouti and Colombia to reintroduce Matt (who’s first seen interrogating and threatening to torture a Somali pirate) and Alejandro. Eventually the story settles back on the U.S.-Mexico border, where some of those suicide bombers first crossed into American territory.
Despite direct orders from the U.S. secretary of defense (Matthew Modine), though, Matt and Alejandro’s team isn’t really focused on capturing or even stopping terrorists (and the entire terrorist plot is dismissed via a single line late in the movie). In order to sow discord among rival Mexican drug cartels, they stage the kidnapping of 16-year-old Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a powerful cartel leader, with the aim of making it look like the work of a rival organization. It sounds like a half-baked plan from the start, and it’s no surprise when things start going wrong, eventually pitting old allies Matt and Alejandro against each other.
Of the filmmaking team that made Sicario such a tense, complex and beautiful film, the only major returning member is writer Taylor Sheridan, who subsequently wrote the superb socially conscious crime thrillers Hell or High Water and Wind River, but seems to have lost his way here, ditching the nuances of his previous work for something cruder and broader. Director Stefano Sollima, a veteran of Italian TV making his first English-language feature, doesn’t have Denis Villeneuve’s eye for unsettling staging or constructing a white-knuckle suspense sequence. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and late composer Johann Johannsson also make their absence felt, and Soldado is put together more like a mid-level cable drama than a high-end art film.
Brolin and Del Toro are good at projecting grim determination, but they don’t get to be as gleefully amoral this time around, and it makes their characters less interesting. After a fabulous introduction in which Isabel delivers a beatdown on a private-school classmate and then stares down the school headmaster, daring him to expel the daughter of a drug kingpin, Moner spends most of the movie reacting in fright to her dangerous circumstances.
Her character arc could be an extension of Kate’s from the first movie, in which a strong woman stands up for herself even in the face of increasingly intractable resistance, but instead she just serves as a plot device for the macho male characters to pass back and forth. It’s a disappointing representation of the ways Soldado fails to live up to its predecessor.