“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is a mean movie. That’s sort of its thing. Much like the previous installment of this unlikely franchise, the film drapes itself in darkness so that it can focus our attention on any stray specks of light; one early shot, in which the white halo of a helicopter spotlight tracks a brown man as he sprints towards the Texas border during the dead of night, provides a convenient visual metaphor.
It’s also a hard movie, in the way that Josh Brolin’s jawline is hard, or that Hemingway is hard, or that trying to carve a coherent narrative out of the Escher-like power struggle of the Mexican Drug War is hard. Like “Sicario,” “Wind River,” and everything else that Taylor Sheridan has ever scripted, “Day of the Soldado” feels like it was written on a bender of whiskey and Viagra — even the female characters act like big swinging dicks, because Sheridan only seems to know one way of expressing real strength.
Be that as it may, the unfortunately titled “Day of the Soldado” is all about piercing a hole in that hyper-masculine armor. Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” hinged on a simple question: Can you fight a monster without becoming a monster yourself? Stefano Sollima’s sequel — which unfolds like more of a response to the original than it does a continuation of its story — addresses that question with one of its own: Is it possible for a man who’s forfeited his humanity to hop over the border and steal any of it back? After two punishing hours of explosive violence, bird’s-eye shots of SUV caravans, and ominous rumbling sounds over the soundtrack, the only answer we’re given is a resounding … kind of? That shrug isn’t forceful enough to compensate for what you have to sit through in order to see it.
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The plot, which is shaped by (and ultimately succumbs to) the messy down-is-up logic of dealing with cartel violence, kicks off with a gruesome red herring. First, a man confronted by DEA agents at the Mexican border shouts “Allahu akbar” and blows himself up. A similar attack then occurs in a Kansas City supermarket, where the victims include a petrified mother and her pre-teen child. That last detail is an exploitative touch, but Sollima (whose feature debut was a gnarly drama about Italian riot cops) has big shoes to fill, and perhaps felt the need to prove that he was ruthless enough for the Sicario Cinematic Universe (SCU). No one is safe on the Day of the Soldado!
That is, no one except special ops super badass Matt Graver (Brolin) and his assassin bff, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). When Attorney General Matthew Modine seizes on the terrorist attacks as a chance to start a war between the cartels, the two “Sicario” survivors are dropped into Mexico City and ordered to wreak some havoc. “There are no rules this time,” Graver tells his compatriot, which really makes you wonder what the rules were last time. (Didn’t the first movie end with Gillick going rogue and murdering an entire family of people?) And while our terse anti-heroes are ostensibly in harm’s way for the rest of the film, it’s hard to build a breathless suspense thriller around characters who seem as un-killable as they are unfazed by death.
Sheridan’s script recognizes the problem to a certain extent, and addresses it by introducing two younger characters whose fates are more uncertain. The first is Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American kid who lives inches from the border wall. While his mom thinks he’s going to high school, Miguel is spending his being groomed to become a human trafficker. Aside from one baffling, coincidental encounter, the boy’s story is separate from the other plots during the first two acts, but the character’s full purpose only becomes clear after he gets tangled up with Gillick. The one-sided fight that eventually breaks out over his soul helps steer “Day of the Soldado” towards more compelling ground, but it’s too little too late.
More central to the action — but less compelling for that — is Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the scrappy young daughter of a drug cartel kingpin. Graver and Gillick kidnap her while disguised as a rival gang, hoping to use the girl’s abduction to spark a civil war. Over time, in a way that feels more like Spielberg than “Sicario,” the child inspires goodness from these men. Her effect is different on each of them, but it’s always expressed through such a degree of stiff-jawed stoicism that even Dwayne Johnson would roll his eyes.
Though “Day of the Soldado” bounces back from its leaden and scattered middle section by focusing on the bond between Gellick and Isabela, not even a gifted performer like del Toro — so good at churning deep-seated pain into visible pathos — can tough his way through some of this stuff. One scene, in which his heavily armed character is contrived into using sign language so that we can learn more about his tragic past, is a cringe-worthy reminder that exposition should only be avoided when it can be avoided well.
If “Day of the Soldado” is able to grit its teeth through some very iffy storytelling, that’s chiefly because Denis Villeneuve lends it the strength to keep bulldozing its way forward. The clenched, steely-eyed aesthetic he bequeathed to Sollima is enough to keep the story involving — danger is always lurking, the roads are never clear for long, and every limp scene is rescued by one of Brolin’s dry quips or someone getting shot in the face off-screen. The violence begets violence, all of the victories are pyrrhic, and everyone’s face is pushed into the dirt until they can find some purity in this big swirl of shit. That’s the only happy ending possible here.
Alas, all the darkness in the world doesn’t make “Day of Soldado” feel real, and errant mentions of a weak-stomached POTUS violently return us to the atrocities happening beyond the frame. Gellick and Graver might retrieve some missing part of themselves, but who gives a damn about their humanity when so many others on the fringes of this story have theirs forcibly stripped away? It’s not just in the news, it’s also in the movie, pulling our attention to where it naturally wants to go. The ultra-seriousness of the first “Sicario” relied on people not knowing much about what was really going on at the border. Now we all know too much.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” opens in theaters on Friday, June 29.