For starters, the follow-up to 2016’s Sicario is not in the same essential-viewing category as the original – that’s what happens when you remove inspired director Denis Villeneuve from the equation. Ditto actress Emily Blunt who humanized the original’s covert drug action as a conflicted FBI field agent and is AWOL here. Director Stefano Sollima, who made his bones on Italian TV (Gomorrah), has been brought in to stage a sequel filled with ultra-violence, which he’s bloody good at – it’s the moral undercurrents that elude him.
The good news is that bruising, caustically funny, deep-dish dialogue is a specialty of returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water). Also back is Josh Brolin as Matt Graver, a shady federal agent in cargo shorts and sandals, whose job this time is to gin up a war between Mexican drug cartels. The idea is to kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the 16-year-old daughter of a cartel kingpin, and make him think his narco rivals did it. That way, he reasons, the bad guys destroy each other while America reaps the benefits. Is anyone better than Brolin at getting bitter laughs from the worst of human behavior? And Benicio Del Toro steps up again as Alejandro Gillick, a U.S. secret-ops ally in putting the screws to those who profit from drugs, as well from smuggling Islamic terrorists across the border.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado lands in theaters just when the world is hyper-focused on the Trump policy that separated illegal Mexican migrants from their children – many of whom were sent to detention centers like the one in McAllen, Texas, a border-town location for this film as well. Obviously, the sequel was written before these events. And yet Soldado, intentionally or not, gives credence to the rancid POTUS argument that a zero-tolerance policy against illegal immigrants is meant to protect U.S. citizens from the criminal element. In an early scene, Sollima shows a mother and daughter in an American big-box store quaking in fear right before an ISIS suicide bomber blow the place up. It plays like Trump-style fear-mongering being used to sell tickets to a Hollywood entertainment. Lines are being crossed here.
The film finds a somewhat more defensible dramatic ground when it goes on the run with Sellick and the cartel kingpin’s daughter. Isabel catches on quickly that she’s a pawn in a U.S. game. It’s clear she’s tough: In an earlier scene, Isabel beats up another girl at school for calling her a “narco whore.” The teen’s growing awareness of her place in this larger world is sharply portrayed by Moner, who’s a true find. And Del Toro is peerless at suggesting what’s left of a soul in a warrior determined to smuggle the child of those left him childless safely across the border and into the States. It’s a rare reference to honor in a geopolitical landscape that’s forgotten the meaning of the term.
Back home, Graver is getting battered by his boss, Cynthia Foards (a steely Catherine Keener) – not for killing Mexican police during Isabel’s kidnapping, but for being caught at it. The Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) is as furious as the President; they want the problem to disappear, along with the people who caused it. Graver, conflicted for a minute, follows orders. What happens next sets the stage for Soldado‘s last act, and what’s arguably the most cynical portrait of corrupted American ideals in years. Maybe we really do get the movies we deserve.