It didn’t seem like we needed a sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 Sicario, in which Emily Blunt’s FBI agent takes on Mexican cartels alongside federal agents (played by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin) who seem every bit as shady as the drug lords they were taking down. We especially didn’t need a sequel in which Villeneuve and Blunt have moved on but her co-stars remained and a new director took over the reins, right? Actually, Sicario: Day of Soldado, has a key element intact: screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the original, as well as Hell Hath No Fury and last year’s Wind River. Sheridan, who is the one of the best screenwriters currently working, has once again crafted an amazing crime thriller. While the Canadian Villeneuve works on a new version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the new Sicario has been helmed by Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, who is more than up to the task.
Brolin’s CIA agent Matt Graver and Del Toro’s black ops wunderkind Alejandro return, as the two off-the-books but extremely reliable soldiers undertake a wild, well-funded and extremely dangerous mission to start a drug cartel war with “everyone.”
The first thing to note about Sollima’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the violence. From the very first scene, we witness acts of terrorism, taking place at the Mexican border and, soon thereafter, in a crowded Kansas grocery store. These scenes (like many others later in the film) are shocking but show an admirable restraint. Sollima suggests the worst, doesn’t linger on gore and only once (during a pivotal third act turn) allows us to see vivid bloodshed. For a film taking place in such an aggressively brutal, hyper-masculine world, there’s a smart, deliberate manner in how all this is depicted. From start to finish, Sollima’s staging of complex sequences and Sheridan’s wonderfully terse dialog draw us into a grim, thoroughly intense but utterly engrossing experience.
While Italian director Sollima doesn’t have as controlled a visual style as Villeneuve, he connects the two films visually and thematically. Any fears going in that this would be a forced, painfully unnecessary sequel fades after the stunning opening moments. It’s a pleasure to watch the leads in their element: Brolin, who’s on a roll this summer, and especially Del Toro, who is simply mesmerizing, add greater, even more complex shades to their roles. Catherine Keener and Matthew Modine are good in supporting turns, though Modine’s appearance in the shattering, real-world terror first act is the rare reminder this gave me that I’m watching a movie.
The breakout performance is by 16-year-old actress Isabela Moner, who’s excellent playing Isabela Reyes, the spoiled brat daughter of an imposing drug czar. Moner initially creates a character we love to hate, then allows us to see Reyes’ guarded vulnerability fade away. Witnessing how well Moner holds the screen with Del Toro is all the proof one needs that we’re seeing a true actress and a star in the making.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado stands alone proudly (even for those who haven’t caught up with the first Sicario yet) but still honors the ambitions and themes of the original. In light of the recent Trump administration border separation policy, in which families have been torn apart while illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the film’s setting is extremely timely; Sheridan’s screenplay offers non-political but emotionally charged commentary on the atmosphere, participants and experience of border crossing. Sheridan is working firmly in the mode of a western and doesn’t editorialize. Instead, the “good guys” are corrupted and behave in loathsome ways, while the “bad guys” are recognizably human and not beyond redemption. Sheridan’s muscular dialog has shades of a great Michael Mann screenplay and his surprising story turns bear the mark of someone who loves a tough, unpredictable “horse opera” (as westerns were once referred).
Del Toro, who has the weary charisma of Humphrey Bogart, is always worth seeing. This unexpected sleeper of a follow up is so alarmingly good, I welcome the possibility of a Sicario Tres.
Rated R / 123 Min.