It is very easy to imagine Donald Trump squealing with glee through much of Sicario: Day of the Soldado given the number of ‘evil’ Mexicans despatched by a group of Government-sanctioned mercenaries in this follow-up to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 Emily Blunt-starring Sicario. As is so often the case in film and television productions that emanate from America, anybody from Mexico is presented as potentially problematic and that is again the case here. Not nearly as nuanced as Villeneuve’s film in its tackling of an issue that, as it turns out, perhaps isn’t an issue at all, Day of the Soldado is likely to leave audiences more conflicted over the morality of what transpires than any of the characters ever seem to be. There is much to be appreciated here from a technical and performance perspective, but it is a very subjective piece of work that suffers from a lack of balance in its exploration of a topic that is much more complex.
The film opens with a (presumably) typical rounding up of immigrants attempting to make the cross from Mexico to the United States under the cover of night, only for things to take an unexpected turn when one member of the group sets off an explosive device. When a supermarket is subsequently hit by three suicide bombers (in a scene that is stunningly effective in articulating the brutal banality of such an attack), questions are asked about who the attackers are and how they might have made their way to America. It is very hastily determined that the bombers must have been smuggled into the country by Mexican drug cartels expanding their scope of operations, a conclusion that is reached with very little exposition. Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro reprise their roles from the first film and Taylor Sheridan has again penned the screenplay, but the absence of Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and Blunt can be felt in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the absence of the ethical oversight that Blunt’s by-the-book FBI agent would cast on proceedings.
Brolin’s Matt Graver is a covert ops expert drafted by Secretary of Defence James Riley (Matthew Modine) to enact retaliation against the cartels but, of course, they cannot be seen to instigate any kind of police or military action in Mexico, so a plan is hatched to whip up a conflict between drug crews by kidnapping Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) the daughter of a cartel kingpin. We first meet Isabel as she unleashes on another student in a schoolyard beating, as if to ensure that we have little sympathy for anything that might happen to her. Graver again turns to Alejandro (del Toro) to undertake the abduction and serve as a scapegoat in the event that things don’t go according to plan. A second storyline that follows Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a teenager from the American side of the border recruited into the people-smuggling game by his gangster cousin, comes devoid of any context or insight into Miguel’s decision, as if to suggest that is all we can expect from somebody such as him.
The performances from Brolin and del Toro are fine, the latter churning deep emotional pain into visible pathos without uttering a word, while Moner is also impressive as a young woman who is nothing more than a pawn in the brutality that unfolds around her. Catherine Keener, meanwhile, is criminally under-used as Graver’s boss; the only other female character afforded even a skerrick of screen time. Director Stefano Sollima (Gamorrah) has constructed some genuinely exciting moments and, whilst topical in the wake of current events in America, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is much more violent than its predecessor without really offering anything by way of a solution to any of the issues surrounding the movement of people – illegally or otherwise – into the United States. However, with a final scene so blatant in its existence as nothing more than a set-up for another sequel, it seems as though Graver and his gang (or some similar iteration of such) will be back to fight another day.