Courtesy of Sony
Back in 2015, “Sicario” secretly took the world by storm, Director Denis Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049”) made a low-slung film about a dirty drug war with Mexico (a backdrop to possibly hundreds of movies) and infused it with style and flair to make it seem fresh again. Nobody saw it as a franchise starter, but with all the tension festering between Mexico and the United States, it almost makes sense to revisit this series, and while this follow-up entitled “Day of the Soldado” doesn’t match the attitude of its predecessor, it has a stacked cast, gripping layout, and enough raw action to merit a second look down the rabbit hole.
From the start, one person you’ll notice missing is Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) whose absence is felt from the opening frame (remember “Sicario’s” opening sequence that made audiences pick up their jaws from the floor?) Another notable swap is Villeneuve relinquishing directing duties over to Stefano Sollima as he takes the groundwork and framing that made “Sicario” very slick and engaging to moderate success here.
If “Sicario” was an ensemble piece, then “Soldado” solemnly belongs to Benicio del Toro who is back as the original sicario Alejandro, once again roped into a war on the Mexican cartel by longtime collaborator Matt Graver (Josh Brolin - continuing to have a dominating summer between this, ‘Avengers’ and ‘Deadpool 2’). Graver is the type of soul that doesn’t waste time. In the opening twenty minutes, he skips right past water-boarding tactics, and blows up a suspected terrorist house so he will cough up intel. Brolin knows how to handle this material, so that even when the script seems a bit strained for material, hearing Graver saying the lines “We’re cutting you loose” or “No rules. Just orders” - you believe every syllable.
As for the plot, Graver is in a sticky situation, as the president has deemed any members of the cartel wanted terrorists - this all stemming from a horrific bombing that takes the lives of innocent American civilians. Gravers solution to ending the triad is a staged kidnapping of a known drug-kingpins teenager daughter (Isabela Moner who was really good in “Transformers: The Last Knight” - seriously) and lead them on a wild goose chase, framing another gang for the job (hoping they’ll just kill each other so the United States doesn’t have too). Hence the hiring of Alejandro, who has a tendency to carry out jobs without making a mess.
But as you can imagine, things go sideways very quick. Lines become drawn in the sand, and double-crossing is a major plot in “Soldado’s” end game. Including a stylish shootout just past the Mexican border, that is both intense and bloody. These are all scenarios that will seem familiar, but Solima has an eye for the theatrics, which, provided with Hildur Guonadottir’s paralyzing score haunts every shot.
The most impactful relationship in the entire film belongs with Alejandro and Moner’s Isabella. This is all done in trying to humanize Alejandro and delve deeper into his background, which can sometimes seem a bit silly. Especially when a last second realization undermines the truth of what this series has accomplished. Still, del Toro is always a game-changer in roles where he’s required to have sympathy and then drop someone on a dime. That’s no different here, with the layers he conveys as a guardian angel of the girl, which contrasts with his animalistic nature of brutally killing someone in cold blood (watching del Toro murder someone on-screen, automatically merits a recommendation).
There are, obviously, parallels to our current situation today with the news covering gangs crossing the border and killing others for sport; the roots for what “Soldado” attempts to grasp, though, it never quite reaches groundbreaking heights - this is still a dark, fully fleshed sequel and sets up a world of possibilities for the future. It’s junk for sure, yet with del Toro holding the pistol and a political battle raging in the rearview, perhaps there’s still some gas left in the “Sicario” tank.