Even my theater doesn’t know what to call this movie. The game hasn’t changed, but it has expanded. Mexican drug cartels are no longer solely running drugs into the United States. Now, they smuggle terrorists into the Americas. After a horrific Kansas City incident goes down, the U.S is willing to do whatever is needed to curtail the cartel’s influence on these events.

That means getting dirty, and employing the services of the morally grey CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to oversee an off-the-books operation led by himself and the enigmatic Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). Their objective? Not “To dramatically overreact,” but to pit the cartels against each other by staging death-tallying shootouts and the kidnapping of a cartel kingpin’s daughter, Isabel (Isabela Moner). Let the animals kill one another. As the objective goes on, it becomes muddled, leaving Alejandro and Matt with decisions to make that will have far-reaching consequences.

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was a relentlessly dour moral tale about the futility of the War on Drugs. Exquisitely directed, immaculately acted, and sharply written, it remains one of the best of the decade and for yours truly, an all-time great. The expectations were rightfully lowered with the absence of Villeneuve, Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (rest in peace) for the sequel in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Their absences are felt to varying extents, but not enough to prevent “Soldado” from being another, if more messier, compelling moral drama/thriller.

Out of the non-returnees, Blunt’s is the least critical. Well, depending on what you need out of a film. Her Kate Maacer did provide the audience with the only guiding light in a nasty underworld. She was the hero of that feature based on the positive character connotation the word implies, but it wasn’t her story. This installment has nothing to do with her character, and returning writer Taylor Sheridan squarely puts the focus on Del Toro and Brolin. Soldado belongs to them and their respective characters’ development, and seeing the two wade the ethically murky waters together and on opposite sides is captivating. Sheridan also does a good job at deconstructing Gillick and Graver. Whereas before they were wolves in a land of sheep, they’re nerfed a little this go-around. No, they aren’t sheep and completely oblivious, but are vulnerable pawns in a game that they are left in the dark on more than they’d like to be.

Soldado’s just as grim as what came before it, if not more so. Nihilism rules the day. Unfortunately, despite a powerful opening and gripping lead characters, part of a feeling exists that Sheridan’s screenplay is dark for dark’s sake, without the thought-provoking questions the prior movie left most viewers with at the conclusion. Perhaps that’s due to the lesser script, again still good compared to most Hollywood fare, yet disappointing since one of the better writers in the business penned it. To go into significant details would be to spoil a lot, but the…let’s say “methodical cohesiveness” of Sicario is replaced with some instances of happenstance and semi-fragmented storytelling. Hypothetically, even if one were to remove the rumored changes that Sheridan’s original script went through in the final act (producer and director reportedly redid it), at the core, something is slightly off with the story. The ending is simultaneously intriguing and awkward in execution, as if it would have been better as the opening to the next movie or (gasp!) a mid-credits scene. Here’s to hoping that the writer gets the last movie to carry out his plan in full. His prior work has earned him that.

Going from Villeneuve helming to anyone else outside of maybe 3-5 directors was always going to be a downgrade; he’s that amazing at what he does. In his void steps Stefano Sollima, and his only crime is that he’s coming after Denis. Sollima is no stranger to heavy stories, making his name in Italy off of them, and there’s a comfort he shows in Soldado in showcasing the nitty gritty nastiness. Despite being a sequel/anthology movie which typically carries the “bigger is better” mantra that the trailer seemed to indicate, the violence that occurs isn’t done for spectacle, it simply occurs—rather brutally. But if there’s another significant piece this second installment is missing, the work of Jóhannsson may be it. His score played a major part in enveloping the story with escalating tension and deep immersion into a nightmare world, and when his legendary track of “The Beast” appears, everything is perfect, if only for three minutes.

In Mexico, Soldado means soldier.  Day of the Soldado is a weakened and less powerful soldier, but one with enough skill and artillery to warrant another trip to the border.


Photo credits go to trailer-addict.com, movies.boxofficebuz.com, and IMDB.com.

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