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South of the Border

Josh Brolin
Josh Brolin
Sony Pictures Releasing
 122 Minutes
Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin  
Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Things change in Hollywood, and things change in Washington, DC, and sometimes changes in the latter affect the former. That’s especially evident in the case of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to the brutal 2015 morality drama, Sicario. The first movie was filmed in 2014, and the plot emphasized the illegal drug trade with Mexico and some extraordinary measures put into effect by the U.S. government to unofficially go after the drug cartels. The sequel began filming in November, 2016, at the end of a heated Presidential campaign in which one of the main issues was illegal immigration. So, in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the cartels are back and as bad as ever, but the focus is on illegal immigration. The sequel may be more timely, but it’s not a better movie.


Two of the three main actors from the original Sicario return in the sequel, Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro Gillick, a man who lost his family to the cartels and has dedicated his entire life to revenge, and Josh Brolin as Matt Graver, the CIA officer in charge of what turns out to be a most clandestine operation. The film begins an Islamic terrorist attack in a Kansas City grocery store, resulting in multiple deaths. When the Department of Homeland Security determines that the Mexican drug cartels are smuggling terrorists into the United States, the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) and a top CIA official (Catherine Keener) give Graver a new assignment, to wipe out the cartels.


Graver quickly recruits Gillick, who is more than happy to go up against the cartels again. They decide that the best way to damage the cartels is to set them at war against each other, and, to do so, they arrange a kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of the head of one of the cartels. They then proceed to “rescue” Isabel from the supposed rival cartel that kidnapped her and bring her to the United States, with the plan being to return her to her father in Mexico. However, Graver’s plan soon falls apart when his Mexican National Police escort tries to ambush his agents. A major shootout ensues, killing numerous crooked Mexican police, during which Isabel runs away and Gillick goes after her.


The repercussions of the botched operation are swift, especially since Homeland Security has learned that the cartels did not, in fact, smuggle the terrorists who blew up the grocery store into the United States. Graver is ordered to shut down the operation and tie up the loose ends. In this case, he quickly realizes that the loose ends include Isabel and he orders Gillick, who has by now found the girl, to eliminate her. Gillick refuses, so Graver has no choice but to go after him as well.


The original Sicario was a complex morality play, with an FBI agent played by Emily Blunt caught in the middle, continually trying to justify going along with Gillick and Graver’s increasingly bloodthirsty and amoral tactics. Blunt is, of course, absent in Soldado and with her goes the complex structure that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who wrote both films) set up originally. In order to make this a two-hour movie instead of a one-hour movie, Sheridan has no choice but to turn Gillick into Isabel’s guardian angel. The justification that the script provides, that Gillick is reminded of his own family, doesn’t quite mesh with his actions in the first movie in which he had no compunction in killing the family of a drug lord.


Without Emily Blunt’s presence, the delicate morality issues from the first film disappear and are replaced by a series of mostly black (especially Catherine Keener’s CIA official) and only a very few white hats. Also, the addition of the immigration storyline doesn’t work either, becoming in essence an overwrought McGuffin. The first thirty minutes of the movie, in which Graver tries to track down terrorists to find out who was responsible for the bombing, turns into a time-consuming and rather boring dead end. In addition, the film adds a lengthy subplot involving a young boy who gets involved in smuggling immigrants into the United States. It does tie into the main storyline eventually but also occupies too much screen time for what it shows, mostly that illicit border crossings are at best highly unpleasant and at worst highly dangerous. The entire immigration storyline feels like something that was tacked on to take advantage of the changed political climate in the United States.


After 30 meandering minutes which serve more to put audiences to sleep rather than get them interested in the storyline, Sicario: Day of the Soldado finally kicks into high gear once the shooting starts. From there, the movie is a fairly well-made action suspense film. Director Stefano Sollima, whose background is in Italian crime television shows, doesn’t have the touch that Denis Villenueve, director of the original film had (the sequel’s signature set piece, the shootout with the Mexican police, is nowhere near as well staged as the classic border bridge shootout in the original). However, he is able to capture the rather squalid, grimy feel of the surroundings where much of the movie takes place. Watching Sicario: Day of the Soldado makes the audience feel physically as well as morally dirty, as the filmmakers intended.


Sollima does a very good job of building suspense as Isabel and Gillick try to make their way to the border, with most of the people they encounter wanting to grab Isabel for their own purposes. When they do finally encounter the human traffickers, the scenes are truly harrowing. What’s very interesting along this journey is the learning experience it provides Isabel. She’s a girl who knows what her father does for a living but is still unaware of its true ramifications, until the trip strips away her layers of build-up deniability as she goes along.


Sicario: Day of the Soldado is about 85 minutes of a good suspense action adventure, one that avoids moral complexities but does get the audience involved in the plight of the main characters. Of course, the problem is the fact that it’s a two-hour movie. The first 30 minutes are deadly, and, then, the filmmakers make another major blunder when they turn the ending into a blatant hook into another movie. It’s not a cliffhanger, but it clearly shows the intent to make a sequel, and, further, does so in as annoying a way as possible. In a better movie, this might simply be a case of an unfortunate marketing decision getting in the way of the movie. Here, however, it’s enough to change at least this one viewer’s overall opinion of the film. As sequels go, Soldado isn’t bad, but it represents a significant step backwards for all those involved.

In this clip, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin orchestrate the kidnapping of Isabela Moner.

Read other reviews of Sicario: Day of the Soldado: 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) on IMDb