“Day of the Soldado” couldn’t be timelier during this “zero-tolerance” escalation of the immigration crisis, in which children are separated from their parents. Only the “Sicario” sequel from Italian director Steffano Sollima (also scripted by Taylor Sheridan) is somehow creepier and more disturbing than Denis Villeneuve’s original crime thriller.
It conjures a situation in which the Mexican drug cartels have taken to human trafficking, which reunites CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) with hit man Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) after the suicide bombing of a shopping mall. Their mission is to take down the Mexican drug cartels suspected of smuggling the terrorists.
The plan: kidnap Isabela (Isabela Moner), the teenage daughter of the kingpin who killed Gillick’s family, and incite a war between the cartels. But when the plan goes awry and Graver is ordered to kill Gillick and the girl, the hitman has a surprising change of conscience.
“The terrorists bomb your mall and you do a crazy war for real, but then discover that it wasn’t true,” said Sollima (best known for the gritty TV series, “Gomorrah”). It’s provocative but it brings out a different side to Alejandro because of his relationship with Isabela.”
Added editor Matthew Newman (“The Neon Demon”): “Everything was about hiding things and about secrets…you never knew what was really happening. It was very opaque but more focused on the mission than the first film. In what way was this going to go wrong?”
The Creepy Interrogation
Early on, Graver interrogates a Somali pirate in a very intense, eight-minute tour-de-force for Brolin. He psychologically toys with the prisoner without physically touching him. When he doesn’t get results, he remotely blows up his house with a drone. “It’s one of the most violent scenes in the movie, but it’s so effective the way that Matt interrogates the Somali guy that it is really creepy,” said Sollima.
“I remember Josh did it every time from beginning to end into little pieces, and every angle was the whole shebang,” Newman said. “He went from playing with him and threatening him and then cajoling him and then joking and then threatening again. He made all of these transitions perfectly. And then we just had to join them up.”
But that wasn’t easy and the scene got pulled in a lot of directions. It got cut a lot right until the very end of post. “The first part of the film is very anonymous and it’s the first time that you see a face on the screen,” Newman said. “But the scene had to feel like you were in the same story even though you didn’t know what the story was. But the version we go was the best that Brolin did, where you see his humor, his anger, his righteousness, and his flippancy.”
The Convoy Ambush
The most thrilling action sequence occurs about mid-way when Graver and Gillick escort Isabela out of Mexico in a convoy of Humvees. But they’re ambushed by Mexican police. The key was staying with her POV. “I designed the sequence by putting Isabela in the middle because I felt this was really an important turning point, where Isabela finally faces the violence of the world she lives in that is being created by her father,” Sollima said.
“I decided to shoot almost everything inside the Humvee. Technically, it created a lot of problems because you can’t shoot with multiple cameras and you’re going to have a battle around you that needs to be seen through the windows. And you need to move the camera 300 degrees with long tracking shots to give you the idea of the battle. But we learn and discover a lot more about her.”
Editorially, Newman went with the dirty and chaotic vibe. “There’s a shot we keep hitting over Brolin’s shoulder, which associates what she can see, looking from the back to the front,” he said. “So you feel like you’re riding in the back between her and Alejandro. It’s all about her panic and her fear and her anxiety.”
The Creepier ‘Rescue’
After kidnapping Isabela, Gillick pretends to rescue her and takes her to a safe house, where he interrogates her and slowly starts bonding with her. “While we were developing the last draft with Taylor, we needed a moment where, again, you change the perspective of everything,” Sollima said.
“Alejandro has a personal resentment with the girl. Her father is the guy who ordered the killing of his family. But in this scene, it becomes a bit creepy. What is this plan about with this guy just looking at her? It was a disturbing image.”
For Newman, it was the hardest scene to edit because it just wasn’t working tonally. It needed to be about trust and the balance of power yet laced with ambiguity. “There are only about eight lines and we worked on it every day for months,” he said. “And there were different versions of it and Benicio always wanted to say less and less.
“And whichever way we kicked it, even though it was transitional, it had a very big impact on the other scenes between them, which we couldn’t change too much because the performances were very much in a certain direction. I think we just softened it, and we took things out that made him too unreadable. But it was like Plutonium. We had to get that scene right.”