Movie review: Badassery undermines Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro returns in the morally ambivalent sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Courtesy Sony Pictures Benicio Del Toro returns in the morally ambivalent sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Courtesy Sony Pictures

The U.S. government’s current definition of terrorism, according to Sicario: Day of the Soldado’s Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine), is the use of violence to achieve political ends. Riley says this to mercenary Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who has just come back from Somalia where he killed a man’s brother as an interrogation tactic, and is being hired to start a war between rival drug cartels using whatever means he deems necessary.

An intelligent movie with something to say —like this film’s predecessor, Sicario—may have seized this as an opportunity to explore the state of mind where societies employ the same tactics as those they claim to oppose, or the moral gray area of deciding whether to one-up a so-called terrorist at his own game.

Day of the Soldado essentially throws away all of the strengths of Sicario and ramps up the weaknesses, turning the high-minded tightrope act between getting results at any cost, and fighting evil the right way, into gawking admiration of how badass these possible war criminals are.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado
R, 122 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Violet Crown Cinema

The film begins with a pair of suicide bomb attacks, one during a border crossing and the other in a Kansas City supermarket. This connects back to Mexican drug cartels, which have moved into human trafficking, forming alliances that lead the American government to classify them as terrorists. They recruit Graver and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to start a war between the cartels, making it look like one kidnapped the daughter of another, but an encounter with Mexican federal police (corrupt, or just not amenable to foreign troops killing people on their soil?) blows their cover. Gillick takes responsibility for escorting Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel kingpin, to safety while Graver goes home to face the political fallout.

Ambivalence regarding the moral implications of crimes committed by a film’s hero can make for an exciting experience because everything about it becomes a source of tension, including the unpredictability of the outcome and whether success for the main characters is the most desirable resolution. Sicario had the benefit of Emily Blunt’s character—underwritten though impeccably acted—as a third party witness to the questionable mission. Its sequel is interested in none of these questions, but content to admire the badassery of men who are okay with torture.

Director Stefano Sollima brings none of the visual flair or use of space that Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins used to elevate the straightforward story of Sicario into a morality play. Instead, Sollima is content to make Day of the Soldado look and feel like a run-of-the-mill genre flick with no appreciation for the sensitivity of the subject matter or the complexity of the characters. Taylor Sheridan, a writer who has deftly handled complicated sociopolitical topics before (Wind River) also sacrifices atmosphere for a convoluted plot that takes a lot of time to go nowhere in particular. The performances, as before, are terrific, though both Graver and Gillick seem to be completely different people, raising the question of why a sequel was even necessary if the filmmakers aren’t going to maintain the best part of the first installment.

Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Ant-man and The Wasp, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ocean’s 8, Uncle Drew, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Ant-man and The Wasp, The First Purge

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Hearts Beat Loud, Hereditary, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mountain, Ocean’s 8, RBG, TAG, Uncle Drew, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?