By Jim Slotek
If Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed Sicario never existed, and Sicario: Day of the Soldado were a stand-alone film, one might be inclined to mildly-recommend it as a fast-moving, improbable action film about Americans killing Mexicans over a little girl.
As it is, every prosaic moment labours under the ghost of a far better film, one that revealed the moral ambiguity of the people making decisions in the drug war, but gave us a moral center in a character (played by Emily Blunt) whose horrified reactions functioned as a mirror of our own.
There is no longer any trace of drugs in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, directed by Stefano Sollima and written by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water). Instead, it uses migrant trafficking as a launch point for an utterly implausible plot about Middle Eastern terrorist groups hiring Mexican drug cartels to allow safe passage of jihadis into the U.S.
Yeah, that makes sense. Let’s quietly invade the land of the infidel through the most heavily-scrutinized, politically-controversial entry point in the country.
Except we don’t really meet any jihadis in Mexico. No drugs, no jihadis. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is literally all over the map as we start, with a bombing at the Mexican border and one in a Kansas City supermarket, followed by the reintroduction of shadowy federal operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) in Djibouti, tormenting a Somalian pirate into confirming his suspicions about said jihad-via-Mexico. There’s an Amazing Race episode there somewhere.
Back home, in front of his boss (Catherine Keener) and the Secretary of Defence (Matthew Modine), Graver outlines the scheme and suggests it provides perfect cover to take down the cartels once and for all. But first they should do what he previously did in Iraq (!), and manipulate various factions to fight each other.
His plan: kidnap the young daughter of drug-lord Carlos Reyes and make it look like the work of a rival cartel.
Graver, who promises to “work dirty,” picked his target deliberately, since Reyes killed the family of the other guy from Sicario who works dirty, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). Together again, this time kidnapping feisty middle schoolgirl Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), on a pointlessly complicated plan that falls apart almost immediately.
Soon there are black ops U.S. soldiers noisily killing Mexican cops, obviously making the news and embarrassing the President (So… not this administration. There’d be bragging tweets.).
Brolin and Del Toro dutifully bring their world-weary A-game to this preposterous plot (sleepy-eyed Del Toro, in particular, a laconic assassin who says simply, “Adios” as he puts bullets in one of his revenge targets). There are plenty of people killed (and at least one miraculous recovery), indeed the death toll seems considerably higher than the first Sicario.
But you just know that the absence of a morally-upright outsider means that one or both of our protagonists is going to have to turn “good” before it’s over. And over a child. (Actually two. There’s an entwined, needless subplot about a Mexican-American teen in Texas, played by Elijah Rodriguez, who gets lured by easy human-trafficking money, but really is a good kid, even though he reluctantly shoots someone.)
It needs be said that these are characters who, in their last go-round, had no qualms about the death of children.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is described as, “the next chapter in the Sicario saga.” In fact, it feels like the pilot episode of a weakened TV spinoff.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Directed by Stefano Sollima and written by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro and Isabella Moner. Opens wide, Friday, June 29.