Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a loser movie. The first Sicario got by on the directorial talents of Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049), beautiful cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins and a hell of a score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. That trio rescued an otherwise risible script by Taylor Sheridan, whose status as today’s hot Western writer speaks more to the genre’s current sorry state than his relative talents.
His four produced movies — Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River and this — count one great script among them, but all contain the same problems: Attempts at conveying the experiences of desperate white men in desperate times, learning lessons from displaced brown people and women whose lives are never really accounted for as anything but teachable moments and miasma. Whatever.
The first Sicario was about Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent joining an elite task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Their mission was taking “the fight” to the Mexican Cartels, causing as much havoc as possible. Graver’s key ally is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a sicario (“hitman”) whose personal vendetta against the cartels belies a tragic backstory. Alejandro’s mysterious character was the most fun part of the first movie, which is otherwise two hours of repetitive, intense action sequences and grim men explaining how Kate’s view of the world — and law and justice — doesn’t apply on the Texas / Mexico border. At the end of the movie, Alejandro tells her she’s in the land of wolves or some shit.
Which is not to say the first film is awful, just that it isn’t great and foreshadowed the problems with Sheridan’s scripts going forward. But it had a message it wanted to convey about an ongoing conflict and did so with style. Soldado feels like the first draft of a script, something Sheridan was told to turn in with a strict production deadline or else he’d lose the opportunity to follow up his career-making script. This time, Matt and Alejandro join forces to once again attack a cartel. “Taking the fight to them.” Again. They kidnap a cartel leader’s daughter. Conflict arises from that. It’s boring as shit.
What makes Soldado particularly insulting is that the movie opens with an extended sequence implying ISIS fighters are using immigrant caravans to sneak across the border and bomb minimarts in the Midwest. And although that implied terrorist threat is revealed, in passing, to be a facade, Sheridan doesn’t really care because there is only a single sequence in this film where Mexican, Middle-Eastern, African or Central American peoples are depicted as anything but possible thugs or suppliers for thugs.
The movie is steeped in conservative paranoia and myth-making as a pretense for action. You can almost imagine it playing at midnight on Fox News Channel. Gone are the attempted nuances of the first Sicario; gone is the attempt at conveying our modern Western desolation as the result of broken capitalism (which Hell or High Water did so beautifully). It’s a dangerous world out there, and you better hope some badass super-ripped American Military Men can take care of the scary immigrants for you.
Soldado is the nihilistic wet dream of a 15-year-old suburban kid whose understanding of geopolitics comes from Call of Duty and Reddit.
The politics of Soldado aside, there’s no coherence to the narrative presented. Incidents happen and then more incidents happen. Alejandro — who brutally killed a man, his wife, and two children in the first movie — has a sudden change of heart and becomes a Lone Wolf and Cub figure for the daughter of the cartel leader he kidnaps earlier in the movie. It’s actually the best sequence — and the only time a Mexican citizen is depicted as a good person — but detached in tone from the rest of the piece. There’s narrative whiplash every moment, every frame. Relentless. Deafening.
Gone is Deakins’ eye, gone is Villeneuve’s patient ability to build tension. The change in musical score – no variety, no attempt at shifting aural tone from sequence to sequence. Just a dry and ragged repetition. “This is intense,” it tells you, as you zone out and think about whatever chores you have to work on when you get home.
With no coherence, shitty politics, lazy storytelling, inconsistent characters and ugly cinematography, what else could have gone wrong? It’s a perfect storm of poor ingredients adding up to a sequel that will hopefully kill the attempt at a franchise. And the cherry on top: It ends with one of the stupidest lines of dialogue in a modern movie, a single question that throws out any remaining pretensions to seriousness the franchise possessed.