Film Review: ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Starring Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
“Those people are sheep. Treat ‘em like it.”
It’s a brash, powerful statement, perhaps even more so coming from the lips of a Mexican citizen, encouraging his younger cousin to lead a group of people across the border. For many, trying to get across the border is perceived to be their best opportunity to make a safe life for themselves and their families; but for the coyotes (people who run the smuggling operation), they’re nothing more than a payday.
When the original Sicario was released in 2015, it didn’t garner a whole lot of attention from movie-going audiences. Perhaps they weren’t attracted to the subject; drug running across the Mexican-American border can be a pretty touchy topic, especially in today’s political climate. While it didn’t draw big profits in the box office, it garnered plenty of praise from critics as well as those who did see it, eventually receiving three Oscar nominations.
And so, three years later, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro have reprised their roles in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Intended to be a standalone spinoff, the franchise bids farewell to Emily Blunt and instead focuses on CIA agent Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro). After a series of bomb attacks kills several US citizens, Graver determines that the Mexican drug cartels are smuggling people in through the border. Determined to prevent these attacks, the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) essentially gives him carte blanche to do whatever’s necessary.
Graver’s solution: kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the head drug lords. By performing various false flag operations, he reasons, they can incite a civil war among the cartels that should slow down the flow of illegal immigrants (and drugs) into the country.
It’s a dark premise, and the execution is equally morbid. Part of the beauty of Sicario was the fact that the nature of these crimes impacts not only those who are doing the smuggling, but those who are trying to prevent it. From an American perspective, Graver and Gillick might be the “good guys,” but they show repeatedly that they’re willing to function outside the traditional scope of the law.
While the story itself is riddled with uncertainty and grim outlooks, the execution itself is smooth and superbly done. Stefano Sollima steps in for Denis Villeneuve at the helm and gives us a well-paced story that builds a crescendo of suspense and never quite lets us feel comfortable. The last thirty minutes or so left me increasingly uneasy, and even after the climax, I was still left with a feeling of uncertainty over what the future might hold. This is thanks in large part to Brolin and especially Del Toro, who steals the scene every time he’s on screen. He’s simultaneously charismatic and ruthless, a brick wall who shows some vulnerability when he’s around Isabela.
Dariusz Wolski, known for his work with Ridley Scott, steps in as the director of cinematography and gives us a film that alternates between haunting, beautiful, and deeply gritty. For me, the most moving scenes revolved around those who are involved in the trafficking. When we think about drug and human traffickers, we tend to envision dark, shady characters scarred by their experiences. Soldado, on the other hand, gives us a young high schooler named Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who’s looking to make some extra money and eventually become a soldado himself. One of the most bewildering moments in the film comes in the form of a young woman who gives Miguel a ride back after he makes a successful trip. With a young infant in the backseat of her minivan, she’s the stereotypical suburban housewife, just making some extra money for her family. It’s a jarring reminder that the people who are involved in these operations are normal people who you’d never suspect.
It’s brutal and relentless, but it’s a fantastic follow-up to the original Sicario. If you’re squeaming, there may be some scenes that you’ll need to turn your head for. Overall, though, it’s a brilliant indictment of what happens along the border in the name of national security. If you liked the first film, you can’t go wrong here.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado gets an A-