Some movies’ existences perplex you so profoundly aside from the content contextualizing the questions you may have, even if said movie were a sequel to a film you generally or genuinely enjoyed. Case in point: what earthly reason have we got for a sequel to Sicario? The easy answer is that Lionsgate – when they still had the rights to the material before their distribution partnership with Black Label Media fell apart – commissioned a sequel with original director and writer Denis Villeneuve and Taylor Sheridan attached after their film put up strong numbers – around $401K from just six theaters in its opening weekend – before being platformed out from its limited release.
Sony entered a distribution deal with Black Label in 2017, thus acquiring the rights after the sequel had already begun principal photography in late 2016, albeit then without Villeneuve, with then-largely unknown Italian director Stefano Sollima filling the void, and original star Emily Blunt. Strangely, they then marketed the film as a summer action thriller, a completely opposite identity from the original film’s aesthetic. Low production and marketing costs meant possibly minimal losses as Sony reasserted themselves as a competitor in the 2018 calendar year – their last wide release was Paul, Apostle of Christ back in March – making the way for potentially higher earning fare like Hotel Transylvania 3 and The Equalizer 2. But while Soldado itself isn’t bad, per se, one must still ask: what earthly reason have we got for a sequel to Sicario?
Quite intentionally, this review will avoid addressing Sicario and Day of the Soldado’s politics as a question of why the sequel exists, though it is a fair one to ask after Sicario was understandably criticized for seemingly legitimizing stereotypes toward the suspected prevalence of Mexican drug cartel violence, especially amidst the damage created by Donald Trump’s frequent derogatory, if not outright racist campaign rhetoric during his then-presidential candidacy. Its being mostly left out will be in service of examining Day of the Soldado on its own technical and storytelling merits, though it’s additionally due to both films’ political centering being more decidedly apolitical, at least from my perspective, focusing on a grim view of IR amorality and subtly villainizing the U.S.’s intervention as inflexible binary moral judgmentalism.
Where these points felt valid and fresh, if not absolutely downbeat in Villeneuve’s film, Day of the Soldado may admirably pick up the mantle and even hint at expanding upon why commitment to such fatalistically-inclined moral absolutism is an inherently flawed approach to foreign policy, it can hardly be bothered to walk, much less run with this ideological premise. The film is far bleaker and meaner in outlook and execution than its predecessor to no discernible end other than “just because we could,” and especially comes across this way without a protagonist like Blunt’s Kate Macer anchoring the narrative through an arc that allows us to see Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick’s (Benicio del Toro) actions through an unglorified lens.
Instead, Soldado rests its pessimistic tone and oozing masculinity solely upon Graver and Gillick’s shoulders, carrying a more loosely structured narrative that doesn’t so much go through traditional peaks and valleys as it does simply drive along a flat stretch of road with the occasional incline or bump. Returning scribe Sheridan has spoken of his preference for “absurdly simple plots, so that [he] can simply focus on the characters,” but this latest revisionist Western-style war movie is such the apotheosis for said predilection that it borders on self-parody. Yes, the plot is mostly streamlined as per usual with relatively few twists and his characters are just as uncomplicated here, but the latter’s case is such that Graver and Gillick are predominantly left alone without much by way of story creativity corrupting their viewpoints to offer a semblance of narrative intrigue.
Even when the film attempts to weave in a B plot concerning a Mexican-American teenager’s descent toward working for a cartel, it can only do so intermittently enough to both feel somewhat inconsequential and as though it’s interrupting the primary narrative. Honestly, there aren’t so much characters in Day of the Soldado as there are mere vessels for Sheridan’s borderline political nihilism, and the film itself seemingly represents creative impotency masquerading as ruggedly purposeful artistic individualism. Not to mention when this “just because we could” aura endowed by financially-warranted project greenlighting all but negates by unnecessary repetition the sole thematic purpose driving the original’s aims, it becomes reasonable to ask certain questions (ahem) of the creators and producers.
It isn’t just that Day of the Soldado is an ultimately expendable sequel because Sicario itself was its own complete story, but also that it hardly accomplishes anything to change or at least tinker the status quo. As the film moves along, however, it’s to the credit of most individuals not named Taylor Sheridan that it remains relatively captivating in spite of an aesthetic that can’t do anything but intentionally alienate us. Brolin and del Toro reprise their roles as committed to the material’s portentous grit and slime as the first film, though del Toro’s Gillick remains at least more tangible and rounded out with a backstory suggesting he’s got more skin in the game than anyone else, and his particular arc throughout the second half is actually quite touching.
And though he didn’t have the legendary Roger Deakins at his disposal – sincerely, nothing against Dariusz Wolski – Sollima capably demonstrates an understanding for not only Sheridan’s writing style, but also the slow-burning, quietly explosive approach to intensifying international and interpersonal hostilities that defined Villeneuve’s film. Thankfully, despite what Sony’s marketing suggested, Day of the Soldado was more in the aesthetic vein of its predecessor, and though its refreshing palate-cleansing compared to most summer action fare cannot elevate the film above its structural flaws, it does make those faults more bearable, even as this film gets liberal mileage out of late original film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “The Beast” and other ominous cuts from cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir pointedly backing up the nastiness.
Day of the Soldado isn’t the sort of film you voluntarily watch if you want to feel better about the world, and perhaps that perspective is so intrinsically etched into this now-franchise’s DNA – because, yes, we are getting a third one of these, it seems – that faulting the film for its lack of optimism is all but moot point. Perhaps a third film willfully brought into being without proof of financial clout is even proof of the producers’ collective view of the world – seriously, go look up Basil Iwanyk of Thunder Road Pictures’s testosterone-fueled filmography. Whether you find that perspective either unhelpful or unconsciously destructive is entirely reasonable, though hopefully all involved can contrive a good reason for us not to question a trilogy-capper’s existence at all.