Sick as it sounds, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the lucky beneficiary of every belligerent tweet, crying child and political point scored in the chaos of the current Mexico/U.S. border crisis.
At its mean, snakelike best, it’s also a brutally assured commercial action picture, unburdened by the moral qualms or unnerving ambiguity of its predecessor.
Both factors may help it find a larger international audience than “Sicario” (2015), written, as is the sequel, by Taylor Sheridan. The two films represent different kinds of ventures. The new one makes no room for an ethically conflicted female protagonist complicating our responses to the brutalities on screen, the way Emily Blunt’s FBI agent did in director Denis Villenveue’s original.
The “Day of the Soldado” subtitle makes it plain: The righteous U.S.-sanctioned warriors played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, key supporting characters in the earlier picture, are running things now, mowing down drug cartel goons and Mexican federales with impunity.
The prologue sets the stakes, and plays like the stray imaginings of our current president. Along the Mexico/U.S. border, a cartel-paid coyote leads a group of desperate migrants across a river at night. The U.S. border patrol prepares for a routine roundup. One migrant, however, is a suicide bomber.
This is followed by an even more deadly terrorist attack inside a store in Kansas City. For a few excruciating seconds, director Stefano Sollima’s camera lingers on a mother and a child pleading for their lives. Ensuring the audience will consent to every form of retaliatory good-guy violence, these early sections of “Day of the Soldado” know exactly what they’re doing.
CIA black ops specialist Matt Graver (Brolin) gets the go-ahead from his superiors to provoke an intramurual war among the powerful cartels. Graver reteams with Medellin attorney-turned-assassin Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro), whose family was wiped out by a rival kingpin. The mission: kidnap a drug lord’s 12-year-old daughter, Isabela,frame a rival gang for the kidnapping, and sit back and watch the ensuing carnage.
But there are personal reckonings en route. A Mexican ambush on the kidnappers leaves blood splattered all over a rural highway. The horrified Isabela takes off, with Alejandro in pursuit. He had a daughter of his own, once, and in Isabela he sees a surrogate and a chance at redemption.
The next chapter, should it come to pass, is set up by the subplot involving Mexican-American teenager Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a nice young McAllen, Texas, boy seduced into the world of the cartels and human trafficking. It’s an affecting portrait.
The solid if unspectacular box office success of the first “Sicario” wouldn’t typically merit a follow-up. But Sheridan and his producers sensed a hunger for a straight-up genre exercise. Already some have declared it superior to the original. I’m not one of them, though Brolin and Del Toro are first-rate and clearly relish their expanded opportunities for lethal advancement.
I first saw “Day of the Soldado” four months ago in an early screening, well before the wails of migrant children separated from their border-crossing families were heard around the world. I saw it again the other day. Its newly acquired topicality lends the movie an air of inflated importance. It is, after all and finally, content to do its dirty job well enough, before moving on to the next mission.
‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’
Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, and language.