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SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO Tries to Have It Both Ways (Review)

I’m not gonna beat around the bush; I didn’t really like the first Sicario movie. But I suspect I didn’t like it because it achieved the very things the filmmakers were going for. Denis Villeneuve‘s direction and Roger Deakins‘ superb cinematography added an air of bleak grandeur to Taylor Sheridan’s script about an FBI agent who attempts to enter the darker world of government-sanctioned murder when battling the Mexican drug cartels and finds it too rough—the battling of evil with evil is simply too soul crushing. It was the hopelessness that both made the movie work and made me not really enjoy it. Taking a much different approach, Sicario: Day of the Soldado trades most of that for an action yarn about irredeemable characters who the movie tries to redeem.

Sheridan has written the script again, but this time around we have Italian director Stefano Sollima, a veteran of action and crime film and TV in his native country, and Ridley Scott’s go-to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski behind the camera. Day of the Soldado therefore retains much of the visual prowess of the first, while lacking a bit of the unconventionality. This movie feels like a traditional action thriller for most of its runtime while only strafing by some of the darker moral and psychological quagmires of the original.

The film finds agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), off dealing with terrorist cells in the Middle East, returning to the familiar problem of Mexican drug cartels when it’s learned several terrorists had gotten into the U.S. via illegal border crossing. He gets leave from the Pentagon to do whatever is necessary to disrupt the cartels and he hits on starting a feud between them through assassination and the kidnapping of the teenage daughter (Isabela Moner) of the worst cartel leader, the one who conveniently is on the top of the hit list of sicario Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro).

As the mission continues, some unforeseen hitches occur leaving Alejandro and the cartel daughter alone in the most violent parts of Mexico, unable to rely on any government organization for help. This is really where the movie starts veering into traditional hero territory, which is antithetical to the whole ethos of the first movie. As Alejandro bonds with the daughter on their journey, he begins to behave less as the amoral figure of righteous retribution and much more like the Denzel Washington/Man on Fire bodyguard type. This is certainly more palatable to an audience, and a studio endeavoring to make a franchise out of it, but not in keeping with his character.

My fear is people saw the first Sicario and thought they were meant to side with the badass, vengeance-seeking del Toro character and laugh at the smart-mouth and give-no-f***s gung-ho attitude of the Brolin character; but the point is that these are bad people, and the war against the cartels evidently calls for such murderers to fight murderers. Emily Blunt doesn’t have the stomach for it, and neither should we. Case in point: That movie ends with del Toro taking out several families—children included.

And that’s ultimately why Sicario: Day of the Soldado isn’t as successful as the first film: it’s trying to make action heroes out of characters whose sole purpose was meant to illustrate the evil required to battle evil. By changing the inciting incident to out-and-out terrorism, Sheridan gives the characters the sword of righteousness, and by softening them to be kinder to children and still stack up dozens of bodies in the process, he’s making the grey area more black and white, allowing for horrendous violence as long as fewer innocents suffer at their hands.

If you want to see del Toro and Brolin inflict carnage again, without the pesky straight-laced Emily Blunt character in the way, then Sicario: Day of the Soldado is probably your kind of movie. I, however, felt that by making it a much safer movie, it’s actually become not only less interesting, but also, somehow, more troubling.

2.5 out of 5

Images: Lionsgate

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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