(2018—Director: Stefano Sollima)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“If you want to start a war, kidnap a prince. The king will start it for you.” — CIA Agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and CIA Director Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener)
Potential spoilers below
I find it premature when most mainstream viewers jump to labeling the most recent completed movie year as “the best of the decade”. To that, I have always countered with the cinema of 2015, for which I have briefly mentioned my high regard in several past reviews. Whereas 2017 did not see a single five-star rating from me, 2015 alone saw five—Steve Jobs, The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015’s crown jewel for many), Sicario, and Shaun the Sheep. (Sorry, Inside Out fans, but Shaun is a modern Buster Keaton-esque masterpiece.) Down a half-star lie Son of Saul and The Revenant, followed by over a dozen strong four-star-rated films.
Yes, 2015 remains my favorite film year of the 2010s thus far. Yet while the unheralded Steve Jobs reigns at the top today, it was Sicario (Español: “hitman”) that wore the crown for me from 2015’s end up until the early months of 2017. The sobering and exhilarating action thriller was directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Taylor Sheridan, and starred a determined Emily Blunt, a laid-back Josh Brolin, an enigmatic yet intimidating Benicio Del Toro, and future Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya and former Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan in small roles. Three years on, Sicario still teems with cinematic riches—cinematography by Roger Deakins (who would finally win his Oscar for his next Villeneuve collaboration), an unnerving score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, a U.S.-Mexican border standoff scene that swells with tension, and the masterstroke of shifting to Benicio Del Toro’s perspective for fifteen minutes towards the end.
With the stand-alone sequel (subtitled in North America, and hereafter referred to, as Day of the Soldado), only writer Sheridan and actors Brolin, Del Toro, and Donovan return. Italian director Stefano Sollima (making his English and Spanish-language debut) takes over from Villeneuve. Hildur Guðnadóttir takes over from late Jóhannsson in the score, Dariusz Wolski from Deakins as cinematographer, and Matthew Newman from Joe Walker as film editor, among other technical craftspeople. Though it does not become The Empire Strikes Back of the Sicario saga, Day of the Soldado delivers on both intense visceral action and covert operation thrills.
When Mexican drug cartels start smuggling Islamic suicide bombers and other terrorists across the U.S. border, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) once again taps black operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) to bait the drug cartels into war with one another. To do this, they assassinate the lawyer of one cartel and kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabella Moner), the daughter of that cartel’s rival kingpin, as part of a “false flag” operation. When plans to abandon her in rival cartel territory fall through due to corrupt Mexican federal police officers, CIA director Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) cancel the operation and render Isabella as collateral damage to eliminate.
For Gillick, who has become protective of Isabella, that is unacceptable.
Day of the Soldado falls into the unsurprising sequel trap of familiarity for roughly its first half. The opening pair of grisly suicide bombing scenes and Graver’s interrogation of a detained Somalian (Faysal Ahmed) possibly connected to the incidents echo similar scenes from the first Sicario. Whereas the first movie’s subplot of a corrupt Mexican police officer (Maximiliano Hernández) felt subtle and organic, Day of the Soldado’s subplot of young aspiring gangster Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez, in his live action debut) comes off as contrived for much of its screentime. (A husband and father draws more sympathy than a naïve teenager.) Finally, the dual inclusion of Keener and Modine as stock action genre authority figures pales next to Victor Garber’s soft-spokenness in the first film.
Once writer Taylor Sheridan has finished reorienting audiences with the characters and world in the first half, he proceeds to spend the second half catapulting Day of the Soldado back to the first Sicario’s high level of quality. Del Toro and the commendable Ms. Moner’s race for the border is as gripping and relentless as some of the first movie’s best scenes. Ms. Moner gives a strong breakout performance as the capable Isabella. At the same time, she does not take away from Del Toro’s consistent command of the screen as he reprises a role that should have earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination three years ago. Be sure to pay attention to a powerful scene in which Del Toro uses American Sign Language.
Day of the Soldado is not better than the first Sicario, particularly during the moments that feel too reminiscent of its predecessor. Nevertheless, Day of the Soldado proves itself as a searing second act in a gritty, relevant, and heavily mature action thriller odyssey. Its cast is sturdy and its technical craftspeople hold to the mesmerizing template established by the first movie. Above all, Day of the Soldado benefits greatly from serving its weaker components first, before building up to a jaw-dropping finale—one that leaves me optimistic for the sequel to come.
(Parental Note: Sicario: Day of the Soldado has been rated R by the MPAA “for strong violence, bloody images, and language”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong bloody violence” and “language”, and rated O (Morally offensive) by the Catholic News Service for containing “excessive bloody violence, at least one use of profanity, and constant rough and crude language.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.