Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

Directed by Stefano Sollima

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado isn’t a movie that needs to exist.  It’s a sequel to the 2015 Sicario, a movie that establishes complex characters who don’t seem conducive to a series of further cinematic adventures, though as this one suggests there may be a third.

Like with other surprisingly successful movies, the second Sicario loses its lead character (Emily Blunt) and instead rides the backs of the intriguing supporting characters (Benicio Del Tori, Josh Brolin).  Speed 2: Cruise Control did the same thing, keeping Sandra Bullock and losing Keanu Reeves.  So did The Lost World: Jurassic Park, promoting Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm to the leading role and in the process scrubbing away some of his charm to make him more of a conventional leading man.

The movie studios seem to learn the wrong thing from the original movie’s success.  What often makes the movies work is a combination, I’d say, of conviction and originality, but the sequels cling to what made the first one work and make it unoriginal.

That means that Sicario: Day of the Soldado will copy the structure of the original, beginning with a violent, stomach-churning explosion.  Then it will re-introduce us to the Brolin character by panning up from his trademark sandals, as if to say, “remember?  He wears sandals, that’s his thing.”  Then there will be a discussion of their mission taking place off the grid, and as this is going on there will be a disconnected character south of the border between the U.S. and Mexico who will get caught up in the action in the third act.

Sicario worked because the protagonist (Blunt) was an outsider.  She’s an FBI agent who joins a task force to take out the leader of a Mexican drug cartel and quickly finds herself unprepared for what she’s about to see.  It’s not just what they are up against but what they have to do to succeed.  The two main enforcers in this task force are Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro).  Where Alejandro is silent and Terminator-like, Graver is disarming and at ease.  He has long, California surfer-esque hair, and as I mentioned, he wears sandals.

In Sicario: Day of the Soldado these two characters are now the heroes.  Part of what made them so good in the original is that we’re not supposed to understand them, at least not in full.  We may get clues of what drives them, of the pain that has helped shape them, but they remain unknowable.  That’s why we have the Emily Blunt character.

This time around we have to identify with them, and to make such a story arc work, we have to know them and then watch them evolve.  This type of story neutralizes much of what makes their characters intriguing because with that character arc they are reduced to hardboiled but familiar movie characters.  Suddenly they are a little too knowable.  What’s that saying, ‘don’t let them see you sweat?’  Well this time around we see them sweat.

I was ready to not like this movie for all those reasons mentioned, and when this movie opens with a series of suicide bombers at a Kansas City Target, I was about ready to turn it off.

We open with an attempted border crossing which, when accosted by law enforcement, leads to the detonation of one suicide bomber and then leads us into the Kansas City scene.  The implications of this scene feel problematic for many reasons, a version of fear mongering about why the border between the U.S. and Mexico needs to be strengthened. It’s a reductive, offensive perspective, of the people who cross the border.  Even if, and maybe especially because, it’s just for the entertainment value of a movie, spreading this kind of image about the people crossing the border into America seems a problem in itself, some kind of talking point that demonizes the “other.”

Later on we will learn that some of these bombers were from New Jersey, but by then it’s too late, the point’s been made.  I think what this movie tries to do is introduce us to a familiar idea of terrorism (as propagated through the mid-2000s in shows like 24 and Homeland) and then attempt to deconstruct it in the end, suggesting that it’s really the response to such terrorism that’s the problem.

Which, yeah, I’d agree, but the movie never really… I just don’t know what it’s really trying to say or how committed it is to what it might be saying.  The focus of the movie will become much more personal, directly related to Graver and Alejandro, and in that focus it loses sight of the bigger picture which it had been so careful to establish early on.

This movie begins as a wide shot and ends as a close up, and in the process it raises implications about the world, crime and the response to crime, only to neglect it further on.

As an action movie, Sicario: Day of the Soldado remains well-put together.  The action is visually effective, and the performances are pretty good, but this is a movie that is immersed in images and talking points of modern day U.S. politics and thus seems to say things with no real consideration for what effect they may have on the viewer.  It’s a nice little action movie that shouldn’t borrow from such imagery, because it doesn’t know what it really wants to say.

Up Next: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), High Sierra (1941), The Lego Movie (2014)

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