By Chic DiCiccio
When the credits rolled in 2015’s “Sicario,” there couldn’t have been many people thinking they couldn’t wait for the sequel. That borderline perfect crime thriller wrapped up its story and the characters, while intriguing, had a sense of finality. When the news broke that “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” was moving forward, it was a bit of head scratcher that smelled like a cheap cash grab, especially when director Denis Villeneuve and star Emily Blunt weren’t returning for it.
Let us never doubt screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ever again. Other than that awful title (seriously, “Sicario 2’ would have been better), Sheridan and director Stefano Sollima have created an intense, gripping and thought-provoking thriller that once again puts a spotlight on the United States-Mexico border. Instead of drug smuggling, the plot revolves around illegal border crossing and the perils faced to everyone involved.
The movie gets moving after one of the more shocking and provocative scenes in recent movie memory. A Middle Eastern terrorist manages to travel to Mexico and then into the United States where he and others bomb a department store. It’s filmed in such a way to never seem exploitative but grounded in reality and it should put every viewer on edge for the remainder of the movie.
The U.S. State Department brings in CIA agent Matt Graver (the returning Josh Brolin), who we know after the first film specializes in “dealing” with Mexican drug cartels. Matt recognizes that the cartels are also involved with human trafficking and his goal is to disrupt their business as much as possible. Since the United States can’t exactly invade Mexico to fight a war, they decide to pit the cartels against each other.
It takes about 30 minutes before he shows up, but the movie really goes full throttle once Matt brings Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) back into the mix. Del Toro is reprising the role of the former cartel lawyer-turned assassin and they quickly perform two undercover operations in Mexico City broad daylight designed to start a cartel civil war.
This is where “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” unexpectedly shifts into a movie that you may not expect. It would ruin it to go in to too much detail, but Alejandro finds himself protecting Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the 15-year old daughter of a cartel boss. Political narrative changes everyone’s mission and it puts Matt in a precarious position where morals and orders come into question.
The story alone is fantastic and only made better by Del Toro and Brolin, who fully inhabit and own these roles. They play off each other perfectly and these could become signature roles for each of them. Del Toro, in particular, has the part of a lifetime and he somehow oozes quiet menace while simultaneously conveying gentle care.
Sollima combines a more action-oriented style with Villeneuve’s slow burn, grand scope and it allows this sequel to not seem like a carbon copy. The gorgeous arial shots of Texan and Mexican landscapes capture the beauty of it all while also showing its vast emptiness. These shots only further the plot and highlight the impossibility faced by those defending and crossing the border.
The movie world is up to its eyeballs in sequels and franchises, most of which are seen as a way to improve the bottom line. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the rare bird that gives depth and growth to its characters while putting them in situations that you’ve not seen them in prior. A third installment is a certainty and should be highly anticipated.