When Texas-born actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan broke out with “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016), he hoped that the two markedly original screenplays would wind up as a trilogy of “the modern-day American frontier,” he told me. “When I write a movie, I write it for me. I let characters be human and flawed and relatable. When we do things that aren’t that great, we can understand it.”
If “Wind River,” Sheridan’s 2017 directorial debut, was the third installment, then the next in the series arrives in theaters Friday: “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” Columbia Pictures didn’t know quite what to expect when Sheridan handed in a finished script, written without studio input.
Sheridan said the first “Sicario” was “toxic” to financiers because, among other things, it had a female lead. “I wrote the Spanish dialogue without subtitles,” he said. “It was dark, the act structure didn’t make sense, nobody wanted to make a movie about cartels.”
Eventually, producer Basil Iwanyk (“The Town”) sent “Sicario” to director Denis Villeneuve and the rest is history. It played Cannes before earning three Oscar nominations and $78.5 million worldwide.
Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”) said he was unsure the first “Sicario” would work, because of its oddly structured story. It starts with the audience invested in Emily Blunt’s ineffectual rookie FBI agent, then switches to follow Del Toro and Josh Brolin’s rough-and-tumble intelligence agents through the film’s uber-violent action denouement.
“You’re following Emily Blunt’s character all through it and then on the third act you end up going that other way,” Del Toro said. “But there’s something that is interesting about that. I talked to Denis and he said, ‘Yes. No, no, no. It’ll work.’ There’s this other magic that happens in the editing room, and it all comes together.”
“Soldado” is not your standard-issue studio sequel. Sheridan returns to the world he created — the fraught Texas-Mexico border — and rejoins CIA operative Matt Graver (Brolin) and enigmatic attorney-turned-assassin Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro). (There was no room in this one for Blunt, Sheridan told The Wrap: “Her arc was complete … I couldn’t figure out a way to write a character that would do her talent justice.”)
In this follow-up, Graver’s ruthless CIA bosses (Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener) decide to bring down a Mexico City cartel kingpin by kidnapping his young daughter (Isabela Moner), even if the cost of winning the resulting border war is collateral damage. This puts volatile Gillick in a moral bind. Will he do as he’s told?
Sheridan proved prescient. As the immigrant crisis between Mexico and the U.S. becomes increasingly explosive, “Soldado” explores the drug trade and its new product: human lives, and the trafficking of people across the border.
Villeneuve passed directing reins to Italian film and TV director Stefano Sollima (crime thriller “Suburra,” TV’s gangster series “Gomorrah”), who would make his English-language debut. He brought his own team, led by Ridley Scott’s go-to cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. Sollima liked the style of the first movie and felt he could shoot the story in the same universe, but make it his own. “You are going to go deeper,” Sollima said in a phone interview, “discovering an incredible amount of nuances. So, it was essentially a real character-driven movie with a lot of action.”
He modulated sweeping action sequences like the desert convoy shootout with quieter moments. The movie’s pivotal scene follows Alejandro and the kidnapped schoolgirl as they approach a man in front of a small house. The girl watches in surprise as they communicate in sign language.
“You come to this scene after the incredible shootout,” said Sollima. “It’s beautiful to listen to the emptiness of the desert, to give you the information that his character is not just a lone-wolf brutal guy moved by revenge, but he has a soul. This is one of the first moments when we show it. It’s different from what we expect.”
Del Toro considers “Soldado” to be “a different chapter, and it works by itself.,” he said. “With the original ‘Sicario,’ I saw a covert operation that worked like clockwork, like it was a football game: They won the game 48 to 6, or whatever. This movie’s attitude: ‘We’re winners; we know what to do.’ And then suddenly, they’re in a jam. It’s just another plan, but this time, it fails.”
Del Toro likes the way this movie takes on its own flavor. “The way Stefano maneuvered and got everyone to do what he wanted to do was pretty clever,” said Del Toro. “It’s got a different thing: Denis will suggest, and the violence almost looks like it’s in your head. Stefano will put the violence right in front of your eyes. The film finds its own feeling. Its own music. Its own rhythm.
“It’s like the second album of The Doors,” he said. “Their first album, with ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘This is the End,’ and then the second album, with ‘Strange Days.’ It might not be as tight as the first one. But it has a mood, and I tend to play the second album more than the first one, even though the first one’s got all the great hits.”
Villeneuve has praised the sequel as “a hell of a good movie,” but unlike his film, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” did not play Un Certain Regard in Cannes. (However, Del Toro did lead the 2018 Un Certain Regard jury.) Like many studios these days, Columbia opted not to take the festival route.
Next Up: Del Toro stars in creator-director Ben Stiller’s eight-episode mini-series “Escape at Dannemora” (Showtime 2019), a true prison escape saga in which he and Paul Dano are inmates who get out of jail with the help of a romantically involved prison worker (Patricia Arquette). Shooting TV was an adjustment for Del Toro: “I’m a sprinter. I do movies. Eight weeks. I’m good. I just go under, navigate, do the best I can, finish, forget. Let’s wait for the next job. This one was seven months. And it’s fast; you have to prepare for the unknown. It was like, ‘Whoa, when I am coming up?’ I never saw land for the longest time.”
As for Sheridan, who continues to grow as a director (“Wind River”) and series creator (Paramount’s upcoming “Yellowstone”), will he keep building the “Sicario” world? Early reaction to “Soldado” (reviews break June 20) indicates there’s room to move, maybe even create a role worthy of Blunt.