“Fucking Mondays, huh?”
Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) is a brutal and harrowing commentary on the U.S.’s abusive relationship with our neighbors to the South, but it’s in the guise of an intense and exciting action/thriller. Stefano Sollima‘s sequel, by contrast, drops any pretense at thought-provoking importance and instead focuses on delivering a more generic story told once again with tension, suspense, and thrilling action sequences. Sicario: Day of the Soldado won’t make many of the same year-end “best of” lists as its predecessor, but as an electrifying and exciting piece of genre cinema it’ll be hard to beat for the remainder of 2018.
A routine nighttime round-up of people attempting to cross illegally into the U.S. sees one man break away from the others, fall to his knees in prayer, and trigger an explosive vest killing himself and wounding several officers. He was no lone wolf, as evidenced by a trio of prayer rugs discovered nearby, and when more suicide bombers take out a busy store in Kansas City the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) decides it’s time for the U.S. to get its hands dirty — well, dirtier — and brings back Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to get the job done.
Graver brings Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) along for the ride, and with carte blanche rules of engagement they follow the terrorists’ trail and discover that the Mexican cartels are helping to smuggle them into the U.S. A bloody plan is put into motion to disrupt the cartels and get them fighting each other — Alejandro kills a cartel lawyer, they abduct the spoiled daughter of another cartel head — but like most U.S. plans involving foreign intervention it soon goes spectacularly wrong. Soon Alejandro and Isabel (Isabela Moner) are separated from the team, and in an effort to avoid an international incident Graver is ordered to dispatch them both.
We’ve seen this movie before — some elements from Sicario itself and others from the likes of A Perfect World, Gloria, and Logan — but the comfortably familiar narrative of a morally ambiguous antihero forced to care for and protect a child is an oft-revisited one for a reason. There’s drama and easy engagement in that dynamic, and it works beautifully here thanks in large part to Del Toro’s sad-eyed performance. A connection is formed between an empty man fueled only by vengeance (his own daughter was murdered by cartels prior to the first film) and a girl both oblivious and indifferent to the suffering her father causes. A sequence involving a deaf couple in rural Mexico is especially touching, and while these are easy beats to land they land all the same.
The script (once again from Taylor Sheridan) isn’t interested in redeeming Alejandro, but it finds conflict in the returning scraps of his humanity. He’s a severely damaged man, and while hes not above killing children the personal connections make protecting this one an imperative for him. Del Toro is a continually charismatic performer, and while he’s less of a mystery this time out he’s no less captivating. Moner does good work too shifting from a disaffected youth into someone no longer able to avoid the truth of her life. Graver’s convictions are challenged as well, and while it’s a bit more easily dismissed Brolin sells the twisting morality with subtleties in an otherwise brash performance. Alejandro and Graver are set loose with the understanding that there are no official rules anymore, but they both discover personal limits still exist.
None of that is to imply this is a sappy, soapy drama, though, as gunfire, grunts, and bloody carnage are still the order of the day. Sollima is no Villeneuve — and for that matter cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no Roger Deakins — but while the action sequences lack the first film’s building dread and stark beauty they still deliver with intensity and adrenaline. An early ambush sees the world shrink from wide-open landscapes to close-quarter combat in mere seconds, and later exchanges are equally adept at blending tension and excitement. One sequence involving a grenade tossed nonchalantly into an enemy’s car is a memorable single-take, and the gun fights in general offer a precision in hardware, tactics, and impact that too many action movies gloss over.
Where the film is guaranteed to struggle, though, is in its broadly offered politics that suggest, on their surface at least, that “white America is under attack!” Sheridan’s less interested this time around in offering real (non-cliched) moral quandaries and instead goes straight to an exploitation well that feels as at home in Donald Trump’s America as it would in Chuck Norris’ filmography. It doesn’t sink to the depths of (the enjoyably cartoonish) London Has Fallen, but the broad strokes are still evident in its parade of brown-skinned bad guys gunned down left and right by our white heroes. Alejandro is the exception, and it’s no coincidence that he’s also the one who decides to draw a line in his culpability.
“Waterboarding is for when we can’t torture,” says Graver to an African terrorist shortly before blowing up the man’s brother as part of his interrogation technique, and it’s beats like this that will see a certain segment of audiences cheering. We gotta do what we gotta do to stop “these people” right? But while the film’s main muscle is spent flexing old-school, gung-ho American trueisms it still recognizes how neutered all this muscle ultimately is. There’s also a line that viewers seem destined to miss where it’s revealed that the terrorists in Kansas City didn’t even come through Mexico — they’re U.S. citizens from New Jersey.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado loses in a direct competition with the first film, but on its own merits it’s a grimly entertaining ride with thrilling action, a satisfying narrative, and a tease for a third film that we can’t wait to see.