The original “Sicario” told a complex tale of violence and drugs on the U.S.-Mexico border, anchored by Emily Blunt as a principled FBI agent who is repeatedly marginalized because of her own upstanding (perhaps naive) morality.
The Blunt-less sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” ditches most of that film’s nuanced introspection in favor of more slam-bang showdowns. While “Soldado” manages to be exciting in fits and starts, its returning stars Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are underserved by some questionable story and character choices courtesy of returning scribe Taylor Sheridan.
On a technical level, it’s unfair to measure “Soldado” against “Sicario.” The first film was sharply directed by Denis Villeneuve (who went on to earn an Oscar nomination for “Arrival” before delivering the pretty good “Blade Runner 2049”), and also featured astounding cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (14 Oscar nominations, including a win for “Blade Runner 2049”). Even the score by the late Johann Johannsson was a stunner, and “Soldado” probably could have benefitted from leaning on it a little more.
So Italian director Stefano Solima begins “Soldado” in something of a hole, but the presence of del Toro’s mysterious (and vicious) cartel “consultant” should be more than enough to center a movie. In “Soldado,” del Toro’s Alejandro is once again recruited by Brolin’s government spook Matt Graver to start a war between rival drug cartels who have begun a highly lucrative crime ring transporting immigrants across the border.
But before these main characters are even introduced, “Soldado” stumbles with a sensationalistic act of violence that prompts the less-than-legal U.S. response led by Graver. It’s a hollow and poorly-constructed sequence that ultimately doesn’t factor into the larger story and confuses the film’s more nuanced depiction of border relations.
Brolin and del Toro are both terrific actors who can make even the shallowest characters interesting. However, Graver and Alejandro don’t seem to be the characters we remember from “Sicario.” Alejandro, who had a particularly warped sense of morality in the original, especially gets reframed as this world’s version of a hero. It works fine enough because of del Toro’s magnetism on screen, but the character loses a bit of the ambiguity that made him such an intense figure in the original.
The gist of “Soldado” follows a kidnapping attempt on the daughter of a cartel boss, and the climax of this story leads to a few decent twists and reversals. A subplot, involving a young Mexican-American teenager who joins the people-smuggling ring, never earns its place alongside the central story, then strangely becomes too involved in the movie’s endgame.
As its own thing, “Soldado” is a brutal and passable thriller. It just doesn’t feel even thematically connected to “Sicario,” despite the inclusion of some core talent. The movie needs a figure like Blunt’s FBI agent to anchor the story with some relatable perspective. Retrofitting del Toro and Brolin’s characters into more traditional protagonist roles doesn’t fix that problem, and its attempt dulls the darker edges of what those characters originally represented.
Tyler WIlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.