Combustible Celluloid
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With: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castañeda, Jacqueline Torres, Raoul Max Trujillo, Bruno Bichir
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Directed by: Stefano Sollima
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, bloody images, and language
Running Time: 122
Date: 06/29/2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cartel Before the Horse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sicario: Day of the Soldado — the follow-up to 2015's Sicario — is rather unexpected for a sequel. It's a pessimistic, grownup film, and not exactly pop entertainment.

Moreover, the earlier film was only a modest hit, and modestly acclaimed (a few critics included it among lists of the year's best).

Yet the film is even riskier still. It's lacking the three main elements that elevated the original from a good crime film to a great one.

Main character Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt, does not return in this one, nor is she even mentioned. She was the viewers' entry point into the story of Sicario, stepping into completely unknown and sometimes unsettling situations along with us.

The great cinematographer Roger Deakins — whose work on Sicario received an Oscar nomination — framed each shot wide, and frequently cluttered, to emphasize this uncertainty. Meanwhile, director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) surrounded Blunt with bigger, more hardened men, underlining her seemingly small, more vulnerable stature.

Deakins and Villeneuve are now also gone, replaced by the more ordinary DP Dariusz Wolski (The Martian) and Italian director Stefano Sollima.

The resulting film Sicario: Day of the Soldado — "sicario" translates into "hired killer" or "hitman," and "soldado" is "soldier" — is also more ordinary, perfectly serviceable, somewhat smart, and mostly entertaining.

Three key players do return: screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and actors Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. Brolin plays Matt Graver, a specialist who is called in to concoct a drastic plan.

The U.S. is now allowed to classify drug cartels as terrorists, so Graver is given resources to stage the kidnapping of a drug lord's teen daughter, and make it look as if a rival drug lord were responsible.

He calls in his associate Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro) for help, and the plan comes off smoothly. That is, until they are ambushed by the Mexican government. During the shootout, the kidnapped girl, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), runs away, and Gillick goes after her.

In the middle of the desert, Gillick and Isabel find refuge with a kindly deaf man; Gillick can communicate through sign language because his own daughter, slain by drug lords, was also deaf.

But while making their plans to get to safety, Graver gets the order that the plan is to be terminated, and all loose ends are to be severed. (Catherine Keener is perfect as Graver's steely boss.)

Actor-turned-screenwriter Sheridan has made a splash with his smart stories of tough men on the edge of injustice (Hell or High Water and Wind River in addition to the Sicario films).

Yet he takes an irritating shortcut in this sequel, basing an entire plot twist on a ridiculous coincidence, a scene that feels ripped from a much lesser film.

But it's great to see Alejandro Gillick again. Del Toro's performance in the last film was electrifying, suffering, but 99% cool surface, and Sheridan finds an interesting post-script for him here.

Sheridan also takes the opportunity to show just how brutal the drug business is, from kids being shot, to an American mother, with her baby asleep in the back seat, picking up newly-arrived drug-runners. ("Show me another job that pays better, and I'll do it," she says.) There is corruption on all sides.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado feels like a step down, a typical "diminishing returns" sequel in the shadow of its much better predecessor, but separated, taken on its own, it's not bad. If grownups want to see a good, smart crime story, they could do much worse.

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