This essay discusses plot points of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, including some moments near the end.
Sicario was refreshingly blunt in its nihilistic realism: it was a film about people moving through a broken world they knew they couldn't set right but could at least gain some measure of control over. And while Sicario: Day of the Soldado has its moments, where it goes most wrong is in its failure to live up to the example its predecessor set.
Whereas Sicario examined the ways in which the drug trade, horrifyingly brutal violence, and border security have intersected to empower the Mexican cartels, Sicario: Day of the Soldado takes a look at the cartels' business in human trafficking. As the film begins, a Muslim terrorist blows himself up rather than being taken alive at the border, shortly before four radicals take out a grocery store in Kansas.
The confluence of national security and border security inspires the (unnamed) president to let Secretary of Defense Riley (Matthew Modine) take the gloves off and unleash Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) on the cartels. He sets up an off-the-books paramilitary force replete with choppers, drones, a Delta-style hit squad, and his secret weapon, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The goal? Destabilize the drug lords and disrupt their smuggling operations by getting them to focus on going to war with each other; Matt and Alejandro attempt to achieve this goal by engineering a kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of the head of one of the cartels, and pinning the blame on one of his rivals.
As a series of moments strung together in a loose narrative, Day of the Soldado mostly works. The performances—from Del Toro and Brolin and Modine, but also small parts for Catherine Keener and Shea Whigham—are first class. And there's something to be said for highlighting the role the cartels play in ferrying people across the border.
But when it comes to the abyss, Day of the Soldado blinks where Sicario stared. While Sicario treated us to horrifying images from the frontlines of the drug war (e.g., dismembered corpses strung up from bridges and moldering bodies found in the drywall of stash houses), Day of the Soldado spares no time for the human toll extracted by traffickers, gives no mention of the astronomically high levels of sexual assault. The movie feels as if it underwent quick, poorly thought out rewrites, given that the entirety of the motivating action—namely, the infiltration of terrorists into America via narco-smuggling—is dismissed with a single line of dialogue in an effort to wrap things up.
Worse, the final 20 minutes or so of Day of the Soldado undermines everything we learned about these characters from the original film. Alejandro is transformed from a thoughtful, quiet killer into a Terminator-style action hero, able to miraculously survive horrific wounds in pursuit of his goal, which has devolved from taking out the cartel bosses who killed his family to … protecting the family of the cartel bosses who killed his family. Matt, meanwhile, turns into the spook with a heart of gold, jettisoning national security concerns and orders from higher ups in order to protect a girl he doesn't know related to a man he despises.
The direction is somewhat flat, as one might expect when one trades out Denis Villeneuve, one of the best directors in mainstream filmmaking working right now, for Stefano Sollimo, a television director. Sheridan's script is efficient but lacks the masculine zen koans that makes the original such a satisfying rewatch.
Sicario wasn't screaming out for a sequel, but there's a seedling of a good idea at the heart of Day of the Soldado. It's too bad no one seemed quite sure how to make that idea bloom more fully.