First it was drugs. “Sicario” captured that threat as few movies have, depicting the brutality with which cartels control the flow of illegal substances across the U.S.-Mexico border, and imagining a no-nonsense response by a shadowy group of American enforcers every bit as corrupt as the criminals they’re attempting to extinguish. Now, the cartels are dealing in human traffic, introducing a toxic dimension to what may once have seemed a simple refugee issue. That’s the dynamic screenwriter Taylor Sheridan wanted to explore in his cold-blooded follow-up, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” addressing not only the ultraviolent Mexican gangs who control which people cross the border but also the notion that outlaws and potential terrorists may be able to enter the country with their blessing.
Considering how rare it is that an intelligent, topical action movie comes along, there might be reason to question whether “Soldado” stands a chance at the box office (Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” earned a modest $46.9 million in 2015, although it seems to have found its audience in the interim). Lionsgate dumped domestic rights early on, leaving Sony to release a film that couldn’t be more timely given the spike in attention around Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward any and all who enter the U.S. illegally, including those arriving with young children in tow. And while the separation of kids from their parents may have sparked an international human rights debate, this is not the film to settle it.
Tense, tough, and shockingly ruthless at times, “Soldado” doesn’t show much interest in the individuals who dream of a better life in the United States, any more than “Rambo: First Blood Part II” cared about the victims of the My Lai Massacre. Rather, “Soldado” is a grim, serious-minded look at what America can do to disrupt this system — one that’s much too smart to think that a border wall will solve anything, but downright risible in its own might-makes-right politics, which reduce to a single, terse catchphrase: “No rules this time.”
Over the span of four screenplays and a new Kevin Costner series, “Yellowstone” (we’ll ignore 2011’s “Vile,” the directorial debut he didn’t write, and has since all but disowned), Sheridan has established himself as a master of the modern Western, examining the lawlessness and turmoil of the frontier, such as it exists today. His films play like dark crime thrillers, but they have much in common with what were once quaintly called oaters, when tall-hat heroes brought justice where the U.S. government couldn’t reach.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” isn’t so much a sequel as a pilot for an entirely new cycle of “Sicario” movies centered on the characters of the 2015 film (minus Emily Blunt), directed by the man responsible for the gritty “Gomorrah” series for Italian TV, Stefano Sollima. The rise of quality television has conditioned audiences not to expect endings so much as an ever-escalating sense of conflict, within which beloved characters can be whacked at a moment’s notice. Dramatically speaking, that may as well be the narrative model on offer here, as Sollima and Sheridan use the time between brusque, hyper-violent confrontations to provide deeper insight into the key players (there are no “good guys” to speak of).
Even without DP Roger Deakins and the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson aboard to sculpt the movie’s nerve-racking sense of dread, “Day of the Soldado” feels like a high-class extension of their contributions to the ominous atmosphere that was “Sicario’s” signature — one that plays off audience paranoia, exploiting the idea that we’re in way over our heads, watching professionals who’ve done and seen far worse than we could ever imagine as they double-cross one another. There’s a sequence in which three American Humvees power along a dirt road at top speed, where the characters can hardly see anything but dust billowing outside the windows, in which the near certainty that something horrible will happen made me feel like I was suffering a slow-motion heart attack. And just when I thought I couldn’t take the suspense any longer, the scene went fully FUBAR.
Tasked with the kind of unpleasantries traditional law enforcement can’t handle, CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, back for more) has carte blanche from the country’s highest office to interrogate and eliminate those who threaten national security, even on foreign soil. Honestly, Brolin deserves some kind of MVP award for the past 12 months, in which he has brought gravitas to everything from rah-rah firefighter tribute “Only the Brave” to comic-book fodder such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2”; here, he reveals the conscience beneath this unflinching samurai’s thick leather hide — which is the last thing you’d expect to find when “Soldado” reintroduces him interrogating a Somali pirate, something he does with a cruelty that would make most people long for good old-fashioned torture tactics.
Drugs may be off the table, but power is a narcotic here, and the movie’s lesson is: Don’t mess with the United States, which can out-gun, out-spend, and out-demolish all who dare to try. Here, when a trio of suicide bombers walk into a Kansas City supermarket and detonate their vests (the scene proves especially difficult to watch as a mother pleads with one of the perpetrators to spare her daughter’s life), everyone assumes that the culprits must have sneaked across the Mexican border.
“The president is adding drug cartels to the list of terrorist organizations,” informs the secretary of defense (played by a still-boyish Matthew Modine, whose recent turn in “Stranger Things” goes a long way to undermine his credibility as an authority figure), enlisting Matt to cripple the infrastructure that makes such back-door entries possible. That means war between the American military and one of the most savage entities on Earth, although Matt has a plan that will spare the U.S. any visible involvement, if only he can orchestrate a showdown between the various cartels and get them to do the government’s dirty work — which will require a handful of operatives who don’t follow orders particularly well (including Benicio Del Toro’s wildly unpredictable Alejandro) but have heavy artillery experience and really, really good aim.
The plan, which uneasily reveals itself against the ominous rumble of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s bass-driven score, involves kidnapping the 12-year-old daughter (Isabela Moner, terrific) of cartel kingpin Carlos Reyes in plain daylight and letting everyone think that the Matamoros cartel was responsible. Reyes, according to the “Sicario” backstory, was the super-boss who ordered the assassination of Alejandro’s wife and family (above even the jefe he avenged in the first movie), although it’s never satisfactorily explained why “this time it’s personal” if “last time it was personal” as well.
No matter. It’s nice to discover a more human side of Alejandro’s character, and a bit surprising to see how he adapts to protecting the child of the monster who killed his own daughter, especially when the allegiances that initially protected Matt’s team start to break down (they are responsible for decimating an entire squad of corrupt federal police on Mexican soil, which makes their “no rules” policy a bit untenable long term). Sheridan’s schemes don’t always make sense, but Sollima and the cast commit to them with such conviction that it genuinely feels like they are justified, even when treating a 12-year-old girl as a pawn in an elaborate war conceived on the baldly racist premise that anyone Mexican is expendable.
No wonder Alejandro goes rogue, taking it upon himself to save young Isabela — whose first two scenes establish her as a force to be reckoned with — in what amounts to a truly twisted update of that most cynical of John Ford movies, “The Searchers” (there’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it shot in which Del Toro steps through a blind peasant’s doorway that confirms the connection). If Alejandro seemed like little more than a sociopathic killing machine in the first film — the reformed cartel hit man who gave “Sicario” its title — now he comes off almost soft by comparison. That may seem like a violation of his character’s very essence, and yet it’s clearly important to where Sheridan sees this franchise going, as judged by the movie’s enticingly loose ends. “Soldado” may not be as masterful as Villeneuve’s original, but it sets up a world of possibilities for elaborating on a complex conflict far too rich to be resolved in two hours’ time.