Soldiering on

Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a textbook example of diminishing returns. What is missing most of all is Kate Macer, the Emily Blunt character from Denis Villeneuve’s original Sicario (2015), who provided us with an entry into the seriously skewed ethics of clandestine missions across the US-Mexican border in the unwinnable war on drugs. Also missing is Roger Deakins’ excellent camera work. Soldado, again written by Taylor Sheridan, and directed by Stefano Sollima, an Italian director with experience in crime stories (the Gomorra series), focuses instead on the two characters we already know: Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the US government’s go-to guy for unsavoury operations and unusual footwear, and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), the vengeful hired gun. This time round, the US government finds that terrorists disguised as Mexicans have crossed the border. That makes the crossing a terrorist act in their eyes, and so they are allowed to retaliate. See what I mean by skewed ethics?

Soldado is probably the one movie with the most suicide bombings ever, and they are shown in such detail that I need to warn you. The US government orders the ‘extraction’ of the daughter of Carlos Reyes and then counts on his retaliation because it needs to look like Mexico started the war. It’s Graver’s job to orchestrate the extraction, and he enlists Alejandro because Carlos Reyes is just the very drug kingpin who had Alejandro’s family killed. What a coincidence. In the original Sicario, there were invisible corrupt forces at work; that horror angle, and Kate Macer’s presence, broke the macho aspect of the original; Soldado, however, seems to think that, by not showing us Carlos Reyes, some kind of unseen man behind the curtains is enough to make us care, and then lets Graver and Alejandro go rampant south of the border. Soldado falls flat on suspense and atmosphere, although it shamelessly steals from Sicario‘s soundtrack and visuals: the pulsating score and the helicopter shots of a convoy of black vans are all cut and pasted from the original. It’s hard to criticise Sollima when it’s the half-baked screenplay that is at fault here. I had to think of Trainspotting 2, which is not a good sign.

This is Benicio del Toro’s movie. The scenes between Alejandro and Reyes’ daughter Isabel in the desert are the only really memorable scenes in the film. Isabel knows more about her father’s business than is good for her, and she intuits that neither Graver nor Alejandro are legit forces in the whole game. Matthew Modine and especially Catherine Keener are criminally underused as the US government’s key players. There is a moment when Matt Graver wants out of the game and is at odds with Keener’s character. Later, he wants to put Isabel into witness protection. Come again? How can he do that if Keener suspects him of not following her orders? Here’s an idea: at some point in Soldado, Graver is ordered to have Alejandro killed. Why wasn’t it possible to make Soldado about that conflict, instead of sending Graver to Somalia to learn about which terrorists have crossed the Mexican-US border? And if they later turn out to be from New Jersey – why the hell did they have to cross the border at all? The longer the movie went on, the less I liked it. No need for a third outing.

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