At the end of the original Sicario, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick places a gun underneath Emily Blunt’s chin and forces her to sign a paper that makes her legally complicit—and spiritually damned—in the American government’s conspiracy to wage war on the drug cartels. Alejandro, once a vengeful father who now looks so very much like the demons who took his family, is breaking the absolutist identity of a moral woman in order to build a world without morality. He chillingly underlines the point by saying, “You’re not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now.”
Hence one of the several reasons for my trepidation toward returning to Alejandro’s pack. Whereas Sicario was Denis Villeneuve’s tense journey into night, a sequel like Sicario: Day of the Soldado had to find its own path on a terrain that will be wholly without sunlight (or for that matter, Villeneuve and Blunt). Yet that innate darkness proves to be Soldado’s greatest virtue. With no light, there are also no rules, and as such returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and incoming director Stefano Sollima are allowed to build a stripped down and scalpel-sharp action movie. One where the wolves are running free.
This being the time for hell hounds is inescapable from the first scene, as the worst nightmare of many border towns and even more Fox News viewers commences: A group of terrorists aligned with ISIS obliterate a department store in the heart of the heartland. It’s actually a mostly homegrown operation, but since one of the suicide bombers managed his way across the Mexican border, it plays like a political dream for a nondescript White House administration, which greenlights a new covert war on the Mexican drug cartels.
However, rather than being the stuff of right wing propaganda, there is something disquietingly sadistic and ethically bankrupt about Josh Brolin’s reprised Matt Graver, a DOJ agent who has been ordered to do to Mexico what American operations have done to Afghanistan—destabilize the region and turn it into a civil war where the relatively established cartels will devour each other (and their government) in the name of ostensible American interests. That includes Matt forcing Del Toro’s Alejandro out of retirement so they can kidnap the 16-year-old daughter of a cartel from school and make it look like a rival’s handiwork.
It is all going to plan until the Americans are forced into a shooting war with Mexican police, and suddenly Alejandro is trapped with a child—a girl who is very much like his daughter—on the wrong side of the border, and orders have again come down from the White House to “clean” up the news media narrative of dead Mexican police officers by any means necessary. That includes the implicit stain of 16-year-old witnesses.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a different, leaner animal than the first film. Gone is the artfulness and much of Villeneuve belabored slow boil that also heated Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 to sweltering degrees. Nevertheless, the sequel moves like a taut thriller, and one that’ll likely be more ingratiating to a wider audience. It’s also powered by a nonstop, unrelenting intensity that propels the movie from its first articulation of the most unspoken, primal fear in American life to a microcosm of America’s worst mistakes in this century.
Without making a prepackaged political point—Brolin’s Graver is justifiably thrilled to take the gloves off with the cartels, but just as quickly views the unnamed POTUS as “a coward” when orders to murder Mexican children are implied but never spoken—Sollima’s sequel revels in a moral ambiguity that is refreshingly open-ended. In a land of wolves, there are no heroes in the piece, just a surplus of villains. The underlying message, if any, might be there is no changing hopelessly broken systems on either side of the border, so the movie embraces an ensemble of already shattered protagonists for audiences to evaluate on their own time.
As such, Taylor Sheridan reconfirms he is one of the best screenwriters working today, bringing here the same minimalist nihilism of New West lawlessness that informed Hell or High Water, Wind River, and the first film. Day of the Soldado fits snugly alongside those movies with its understated complexity. The fact that the Sicario sequel is a little more direct and mainstream turns out to be, for the most part, less of a problem than an opportunity, offering an action movie for adults who like a challenge. There are a variety of white-knuckled sequences like Graver and his special ops team locking sights on a cartel’s operation from Black Hawk helicopters, or Alejandro repaying a debt to the Mafioso lawyer who sold him out in another life. It’s all visceral, and all still feels like they’re digging closer to the abyss.
Alejandro himself might be the movie’s biggest concession to building a more digestible franchise, however. Unrepentant in his monstrousness by the end of Sicario, he now forms an unlikely relationship with Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the young girl whose life he decides to value over his own. When in the first movie he couldn’t even remember his integrity, he finds something approximating a soul next to Isabela. This is greatly buoyed by Moner’s impressive performance. Able to stand her ground with Del Toro at his most ferocious, Moner’s Isabela is no angel, but the immediately sympathetic terror of being a babe thrown to the beasts in the desert—and in the territory of her father’s enemies—makes this unlikely Paper Moon (or Logan) pairing work. That plus Del Toro’s perfection at playing a merciless weapon.
A small R-rated odyssey unto itself, Alejandro and Isabela take a tour through the entire U.S.-Mexican border underworld, including perilous border crossings, treacherous drug mules, and the desperate people looking for a better life yet wind up being the sheep waiting to be sheared.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a more explosive and action-packed film, and one lacking the grace of the superior original. Yet it still blessedly throws viewers into the deep end and expects us to figure things out as quickly as Alejandro and Graver do—or end up as ambushed as they just might. It’s a more accessible vehicle, but it’s still driving toward a pure cut of that same gritty modern Western high. In a summer of sequels, and in a season of Josh Brolin seemingly appearing in most of them, what a nice surprise it is for Sicario 2 to be the best of the bunch.