“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” opens in familiar territory. As with the original “Sicario,” the story begins not far from La Frontera (otherwise known as U.S.-Mexico border). A small group of migrants make a bid for freedom when they’re stopped and detained by immigration officials. One man sneaks away to the edge of a cliff and immigration officials chase after him, yelling at him as he’s ruffling through his bag. Then there’s an explosion, later a shot of three prayer rugs. The supposed migrant was on a suicide bomber mission, and it’s successfully carried out at a grocery store in the next scene by his peers.
Dramatically, the last bomber hesitates, and a white woman with blonde hair grasping onto her daughter slowly approaches him, trying to talk him out of it. The bomb goes off despite her efforts, and the event becomes the next reason for the government to bring in a less-than-honorable instigator of chaos – Matt (Josh Brolin), who brings along his old friend, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) – to set off a war between the cartels.
Sequels often lose their nuance, and “Soldado” is no exception as it doubles down on violent fantasies about another Mexican-American War. While the first “Sicario” may have not been the most sympathetic portrait of Mexicans, its ungainly titled sequel feels like a piece of state-sanctioned propaganda, a MAGA-sploitation thriller that does not see humanity in our neighbors. It is an alarming departure from the original, which wrestles with the illegality of America overstepping its power and the effect of violence on one working-class Mexican family. The poignant last scene of “Sicario” is that of a kid’s soccer game in Mexico, briefly interrupted by faraway sounds of gunfire. The game continues despite the gunfighting, and life moves on.
There’s little to no effort in “Soldado” to understand what’s going on the other side of the border. Worse yet, the opening terrorism scene is blatant fearmongering that defends the U.S. government’s actions against migrant families and the recently upheld Muslim ban (which now includes Venezuela for some reason). The movie’s unseen president wants to add cartels to the list of terrorist organizations, which would add more military firepower to an already deadly situation.
The film’s ham-fisted Italian director, Stefano Sollima, appears sympathetic to a fear of brown people by showing the close-up killing of the white American mother and daughter by a tall, bomb-strapped brown man. It’s the kind of murder that President Trump would politicize and use to justify his actions against undocumented immigrants. Lumping together Mexican drug lords with Muslim extremists is not a new idea in his rhetoric either, as he conflated cartels and terrorists years before he was inaugurated.
In an attempt to mirror the first “Sicario,” “Soldado” also features a long parallel story about human traffickers. We watch as a young boy is recruited into the family business of smuggling people across the border and how he’s challenged to commit a murder to prove his loyalty. When he crosses Alejandro and other officials in a mall parking lot, there’s confusion as to whether or not this is just an unruly teen or potential gang member. By later showing that he’s taken to dressing as a cholo and likely embraced a life of crime, the movie reaffirms the racist stereotype that all Latinos — especially Central Americans — are criminals.
In order to get the cartels to kill each other, Matt hatches a plan to kidnap the daughter of one of the kingpins. The movie paints Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) in a pretty negative light at first, showing her take advantage of her father’s place of privilege after a schoolyard brawl. Later, Alejandro defends and saves the teenager they kidnapped because she reminds him of his slain daughter. She becomes sympathetic only because she accepts his paternal protection.
Oddly, this contrasts the scene when Alejandro murders two sons of a cartel boss in the original film. They’re absent from almost all of “Sicario” because they are innocent of the crimes their father committed, yet they become collateral damage in Alejandro’s quest for revenge. Forgiving Isabel her inherited sins makes Alejandro more noble than anyone else in the movie and provides at least one character in the film an arc. It also makes him more exceptional; he is not like “them.”
While Alejandro has the more compelling story, Matt is left to wield American exceptionalism like a weapon. For a thin reason, Matt shows up in the film casually torturing a Somali pirate for answers to Yemen and Somalia’s ties to Mexican cartels. It’s just another chance for U.S. dick swinging, a show of strength that’s ignorant of the real truth.
Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplays for both “Sicario” movies, has consistently gives short shrift to brown characters. Although I enjoyed “Hell or High Water,” the film followed the antiquated cliché in which the only character of color dies first. In “Wind River,” white officers must solve the murder of an indigenous girl. Sheridan didn’t make much of a case for Mexicans for in “Sicario,” and instead of challenging the rise of xenophobic rhetoric, he leans into these bubbling racist sentiments with “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”
The new movie ends on an impossible cliffhanger — a narratively inexplicable change to set the stage for a third movie. It felt surreal to see the xenophobic absurdity of “Soldado” writ large on a giant screen meant for entertainment. It’s not enough to be horrified by the news; now, I have to watch horrid lies about the Latino community in movies, and anticipate more on the way.
Some of my fellow critics reported people cheering the murder of Mexicans in the film, and it makes me wonder if we’ll actually get to a point where even Fox News is outraged about the violent killing of Mexican law enforcement. Maybe not. After all, distributors saw nothing wrong with a movie about the kidnapping of a Mexican teenager after what we know about family separations at the border. I’ve never felt the absence of Latinos in Hollywood so strongly as I have over the past few years, and it feels as if that disparity is only growing.
Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Currently, she covers women’s news and pop culture stories for The Lily at The Washington Post. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Variety, The Village Voice, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, NPR and The Boston Globe. She completed her master’s at the University of Southern California as the school’s first film critic fellow.