Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a masterpiece brimming with atmosphere, raw intensity, and incredibly nuanced performances from its astounding cast. Somehow, the film only earned three Oscar nominations. Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt were overlooked, while the Academy nominated Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Lenny Abrahamson (Room), and Adam McKay (The Big Short) over Villeneuve. The Revenant took all the technical awards, which is just bonkers.
Anyways, you get the gist. I love Sicario. I love it so much that I was appalled at the notion of a sequel. When Del Toro’s Alejandro saunters off into the unknown following his successful assassination of a powerful drug cartel and his intense confrontation with Blunt’s naive Kate, the film succinctly wraps its numerous plot threads—end of story. I’m not left with questions or pining for more from any of these characters. We learned everything we needed to about Alejandro. Expanding his character weakens the mystery surrounding him, diminishing one of Sicario’s greatest strengths.
Hollywood being Hollywood, and Taylor Sheridan being Taylor Sheridan, plans were put in motion to expand Sicario into a cinematic universe. Wisely, Villeneuve stepped down to focus on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, ultimately passing the director reigns to Stefano Sollima. Del Toro and co-star Josh Brolin returned, while Blunt, the heart and soul of the original film, was curiously left on the sidelines.
Despite my reservations, I eagerly rushed to theaters in 2018 for the follow-up. I mean, the trailers looked great, promising an even darker thriller that expanded on the themes explored in Sicario. I never felt comfortable with the prospect of a sequel, but I was willing to give it a shot.
Unfortunately, Day of the Soldado plays like a direct-to-DVD knockoff that wastes its A-list cast on a surprisingly rudimentary story that is neither as compelling nor terrifying as its predecessor. The whole endeavor was foolhardy at best, but Day of the Soldado falls short even under those conditions.
After my initial experience, I wiped the picture from my mind and only decided to give it a second shot when the film popped up on Google Play for $7.
So, was it better or worse this time around? Eh, my feelings mostly stayed the same. Although, I will say, Day of the Soldado starts incredibly well. So much so that I began to question why I ignored the sequel.
The film opens with a pair of horrifying ISIS attacks. We see a man self-destruct in the desert, followed by a grocery store attack that kills a handful of American citizens, including women and children. A group of government officials tasks Brolin’s mysterious, sandal-sporting CIA spook Matt Graver with inciting a war between the drug cartels to stop additional ISIS members from crossing the border. To do so, he calls on Alejandro to stage a kidnapping of a prominent drug kingpin’s daughter, Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner). All goes according to plan. Alejandro effectively makes it look like a rival drug group kidnapped Isabela, likely sparking a feud between the two factions.
So far, so good. Then, the corrupt Mexican police randomly attack our heroes, leaving Alejandro and Isabela alone in the desert. Like a Detroit Lions playoff game, things quickly nosedived after a solid first half.
The entire plot hinges on whether or not you buy Alejandro’s sudden about-face. In the original film, this man gave two shits about anything or anyone. He tells Kate that she reminds him of his daughter before sticking a gun to her head and forcing her to sign an important document. Alejandro, we’re told, is broken beyond repair; the death of his wife and daughter at the hands of the cartel left him angry and vengeful, to the point that he murders an entire family to complete his quest for revenge.
In Day of the Soldado, he suddenly grows a conscience and risks war with the CIA and Matt to protect the daughter of a drug lord. It’s a tremendous leap that flies in the face of Sicario’s darker sensibilities. “You are not a wolf,” Alejandro tells Kate at the end of Sicario. “This is a land of wolves now.”
Yet, in a manner that makes Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the Dark Side akin to Walter White, Alejandro’s character shifts from a nihilistic soldier into a kind-hearted protector who loses sight of the big picture.
Now, to the film’s credit, Alejandro pays for his abrupt change of heart. A shocking third-act twist sees a young, up-and-coming “coyote” shoots our boy in the face, seemingly killing him. Alas, he doesn’t die; he manages to break from his bonds and lives to fight another day. Soldado closes with Alejandro confronting the young boy who shot him, either to kill the kid or recruit him for battle.
At that point, I didn’t care.
As political thrillers go, Day of the Soldado isn’t terrible. Sollima stages a couple of solid set pieces and occasionally captures the same look and feel as the original despite not having acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins by his side. However, nothing in the sequel stands out, and that’s a problem. It plays out like a routine thriller right down to the predictable Alejandro/Isabela storyline and lacks Sicario’s alluring mystery and thought-provoking complexity.
I mean, this is hard to top:
Naturally, Hollywood appears Hell bent on making Sicario 3 a thing when everyone involved should probably just let it go. Sicario was lightning in a bottle, an incredible film that spawned from an impeccable group of artists. From what I’ve read, Sheridan’s script laid the foundation, but Villeneuve and Del Toro’s tinkering padded the picture with much-needed depth. It’s no secret that Villeneuve is a rock star. The man has yet to make a bad film and continues to prove adept at injecting every project with layers of complexity.
That’s a hard act to follow. Everyone involved with Sicario should have basked in its success and moved the hell on. Not everything needs a sequel or spinoff/expanded universe; often, additional chapters only dampen the power of the original picture.
Will I see Sicario 3 when it inevitably hits theaters? Sure. But even with Sheridan and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie overseeing the project, it’s doubtful a third film will match the undeniable power of Sicario.
Then again, maybe Alejandro’s words will ring true when the dust finally settles around the franchise: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end, you will understand.”