Other than its relationship to director Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” has something else in common with “Blade Runner 2049”: Neither needed to be made. Their predecessors were that good as standalones. And yet, their sequels turned out to be not just as entertaining but, in many ways, more thrilling, consequential, and rewarding.
In continuing the series’ gritty, uncompromising portrayal of the politics and policing that affect both sides of the United States’ border with Mexico, “Soldado” couldn’t be timelier. Whereas its forbearer focused on the surface-level reactions to solving present-day problems, “Soldado” delves deeper, with characters creating controversies to fix, rather than endlessly fight, the perceived fait accompli that is the War on Drugs (and now the War on Terror). Consider it “Clear and Present Danger,” Harrison Ford’s early ’90s action imbroglio about the drug cartels, meets the jaded seriousness of “Sicario.”
Back are two of the three leading “Sicario” stars: Josh Brolin, the unforgiving and ever-calculating government agent Matt Graver, and Benicio Del Toro, the empathetic attorney Alejandro, whose death-sentencing skills were born out of the crime-ridden courtroom created by the cartels.
After a trio of terrorists is suspected of entering the U.S. through the country’s southern sieve with help from the cartels, the Department of Defense tasks Graver with conducting covert operations to foment drug-related discord inside Mexico that would eventually require an escalated U.S. military response. As with “Sicario,” Graver again turns to Alejandro for catalytic answers through rather unsavory actions. Both Brolin and Del Toro revel in their roles.
Also like “Sicario,” “Soldado” grabs you from the film’s shock-absorbing opening, and doesn’t let go—with reverberations from the initial blow(s) maintaining a steady pace throughout. They’re aided by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s leveraging, and occasionally amplifying, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s foreboding, base-ridden score, continually implying some sense of impending dread. And “Soldado” is as much a visual feast as it is an audible one. The naked, natural beauty of the west is to be seen on the big screen—and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures every grain artfully, keeping up with the iconic, and now Oscar-winning, Roger Deakins, director of photography for “Sicario.”
The story is the only piece of “Soldado” not as strong as its predecessor—and that’s not the fault of the writer, just the strength of the original. In chronicling the U.S. government’s internal strife from its earlier orders, coupled with the cartels’ deceptive practices and players, there is a lot to follow in “Soldado.” And woven throughout is a bond between Del Toro’s Alejandro and newcomer Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), giving “Soldado” a surprising amount of heart compared with the more cold-blooded “Sicario.” Even though it results in higher-than-expected Hollywood tropes, it’s still a welcomed change and further proof of Taylor Sheridan’s screen-writing skills. From “Sicario” and its sequel to “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” Sheridan again shows just how enjoyable a movie can be when it is written so well.
Supposedly, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the second in Sheridan’s planned trilogy. Let us hope this sequel has the required box-office draw to warrant a conclusion. Although consensus might be hard to come by on U.S.-Mexico border policy, we should at least agree that, in light of the excellence that is “Soldado,” a third “Sicario” is needed to summate Sheridan’s already powerful, and potentially classic, series on life and crime in the American southwest.
4.5 out of 5