Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was one of the best films of 2015. It delivered a bleak view of the American government trying desperately to ignite a war between rival drug cartels in Mexico, even if it meant going completely beyond their jurisdiction. Thanks to Villeneuve’s penchant for creating atmosphere and tension, as well as legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ ability to depict a visceral feeling of a grimy and desolate landscape, it was a visual wonder to behold. Along with brilliant performances from Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, it wasn’t your average crime thriller.
It was a surprise when Lionsgate announced a sequel to Sicario, tentatively titled Soldado. Villeneuve, Deakins, Blunt, and the late, great composer Jóhann Jóhannsson did not return for it—which left me less optimistic for a brilliant follow-up.
After a horrific terrorist incident in a Kansas City supermarket, where it’s suspected that the terrorists entered via the US-Mexican border, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) gets a morally sceptical, off-the-books assignment to start another cartel war—one without the U.S. government’s fingerprints on it. The Secretary of Defence (Matthew Modine) and Graver’s boss (Catherine Keener) give him free reign to gather a crew—which includes mysterious undercover operative, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). In doing this, they plan to kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner)—the daughter of Carlos Reyes, one of the major cartel bosses—and make it look like a crime committed by a rival cartel. When the mission spirals out of control, our characters are left with ethical dilemmas of their own.
Sheridan returns to pen the sequel and focuses on the continual decay of our character’s morals and the lawlessness on the US-Mexican border.
From a narrative standpoint, I felt the film missed the presence of Emily Blunt’s no-nonsense FBI agent, Kate Macer—the first film’s protagonist. She provided the moral high ground, and the audience could witness the morally shady events through her in a relatable way. Without that perspective we are left in far more ominous company with no one to root for or connect with.
Brolin and del Toro do very good work once again. del Toro is absolutely fantastic as Alejandro Gillick; he commands this role, bringing an aura of mystery, energy and subtlety to every scene, and he’s able to portray the slight shed of humanity behind the eyes of Alejandro. Brolin brings his cowboy bravado and machismo to the character of Matt Graver, who we know after the first film isn’t afraid to use his power to achieve whatever mission he is tasked to execute. Moner, the main new addition to the cast, also does a good job—especially in her scenes with del Toro.
Italian director Stefano Sollima takes over the reigns as director and, despite the competent job, it’s evident he doesn’t have the same skills in creating mood and atmosphere as Villeneuve does. It feels like a more conventional crime thriller compared to the first. It’s fortunately not the direct-to-video looking action film that the trailers are disappointingly marketing it as. In Sicario, Villeneuve was able to add real ethereal quality, elevating Taylor Sheridan’s already compelling script. Sicario: Day of the Soldado doesn’t have that quality, resulting in a film which is faster paced than its predecessor (this film is only one minute longer than first), but packs less punch visually and narratively. The film’s action is handled quite well by Sollima and he brings a brutal, no-holds-barred quality to each set piece, demonstrating a relative flair for the brutal, gut-punch action throughout. But nothing is as memorable or tension-filled as the best sequences in Sicario, and although he’s able to capture the same bleak tone, he lacks Villeneuve’s meticulous attention to detail behind the camera.
Taking over from Roger Deakins as cinematographer is a tough ask, but frequent Ridley Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski does a commendable job. I definitely found there to be more handheld, in comparison to Deakins’ steadier approach. Sollima and Wolski clearly wanted to emulate the overhead tracking and aerial shots of the vast landscapes of the border, which Villeneuve and Deakins used to brilliant effect in the first film.
Hildur Guðnadóttir takes over as composer from the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson and does a fantastic job. As a protégé of Jóhannsson’s, she was able to recapture his ominous and unsettling sonics very well, and keeps in tone with Jóhannsson’s Academy Award nominated score from the first film.
Sheridan’s script doesn’t feel as tight or impactful as the first, resulting in uneven plot threads, even if exploring Alejandro’s character more deeply was a smart and unexpected choice. It also contains an ending which felt abrupt and didn’t apply the gut-punch of the first film. Some narrative choices may come off as violations to the very essence of certain characters from the first film, but it’s obvious Sheridan knows where he wants this franchise to go (yes, he wants a third—judging by the movie’s semi-frustrating loose end).
Overall, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is quite a mixed bag, and one which succeeds as more of a standalone spin-off than a straight-up sequel to the first film—as such, Soldado would’ve been a more effective title. This is a solid thriller, but, unfortunately, compared to the first film, it doesn’t hit nearly as hard. Considering Villeneuve wasn’t on board, I can’t say I didn’t expect it.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is in cinemas now.