‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Aims for Standard Drug War Action

Sicario: Day of the Soldado” returns to the ominous borderlands fueled by crime and despair first explored in 2015’s Oscar-nominated “Sicario.” It continues the earlier film’s themes of covert U.S. interventionism in Mexico, with the apparent idea that the ongoing drug war is a sort of low-level Vietnam. Quiet men with fierce stares utter cryptic lines, drug cartels ferry migrants across the desert and much blood is spilled. The difference this time around is that “Day of the Soldado” prefers to be more of a standard action movie, going less for atmosphere and more for formula violence.

The film opens late in the night along the U.S.-Mexico border as migrants make their way across from the south to the north. Border Patrol agents soon descend on the group only to find that one of the migrants is actually a Muslim, who gets on his knees, prays to Allah and then blows himself up. Cut to a grocery store in the U.S. where another group of Muslim men carry out a suicide attack. U.S. federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to confront the situation, as the government suspects drug cartels are now trafficking terrorists. Graver devises a scheme to provoke war between the cartels by staging attacks and assassinations. To do this he recruits old friend Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the former lawyer turned government agent, whose family was murdered by a drug lord he snuffed out in the first movie. Their first operation is to kidnap a feisty schoolgirl named Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel boss. By making the kidnapping look like the work of a rival criminal gang, Graver hopes to ignite a gangland civil war. The operation does not go as planned and dangerous complications take shape.

“Day of the Soldado,” “soldado” meaning “soldier” in Spanish, continues the world of the original film without going for anything larger or even deeper. This one is also penned by Taylor Sheridan, who has become known for writing modern-day westerns where action combines with a gritty elegance, but this sequel is directed as more of a stylish action piece. The original “Sicario” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who likes to immerse the audience in waves of sound and alluring imagery as seen recently in “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival.” His vision of the drug war, lit by Roger Deakins, was one of crawling dread and eerie silences, where violence would break tension. “Day of the Soldado” is directed by Stefano Sollima, a veteran of TV who has a fantastic visual eye but prefers a tighter narrative. But he still tells the story with atmosphere. His cinematographer here is Dariusz Wolski, who is well-known for his work with Ridley Scott, and they manage to capture the territory connecting the U.S. and Mexico in baroque shadows. The desert becomes a threatening stage where scores are settled. A returning motif is the use of U.S. military convoys crossing the border at will, giving the visual impression that while it’s hard for migrants to cross over, U.S. operatives can go back and forth at ease. Sollima convincingly creates the idea of the might of U.S. forces confronting an underground criminal entity. Graver will look over a crime scene via satellite, ordering rewinds and zooms to focus on a specific person, then having their phones tracked Edward Snowden style. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates a wall of pounding sound, with droning passages similar to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work in the first movie.

While “Day of the Soldado” has some of the style of the original, this one is more of a testosterone shootout. An easy way to describe its structure is an absurd opening, a strong middle and a standard ending. The whole storyline at the beginning involving Islamic terrorists feels forced, first because it plays like action movie hyperbole (this kind of incident has yet to take place anywhere along the border) and second it never amounts to anything within the plot. By the second act it is completely forgotten. The story gets interesting once Isabel is kidnapped and the operation turns sour, with Graver’s superiors ordering him to shut it all down and cut Alejandro loose. Sheridan’s screenplay is strongest when it also diverts from all the macho material and focuses on a Mexican kid named Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), who ditches school and is recruited by a local thug, Hector (David Castañeda), to smuggle migrants. There is strong material here about the allure of criminal activities for the poor and aimless, who are powerless to refuse the large sums of easy money.

The strong material is balanced with moments of action movie absurdity or bombast. Military helicopters chase narco vans down highways, entire caravans are blown to bits, at one point a tied-up character takes a bullet to the head, miraculously survives and manages to free himself, steal a truck and toss grenades at his pursuers (after what appears to be quite a lot of blood or matter oozes from his head). Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, who in the original “Sicario” was an enigmatic force, a haunted angel of vengeance, is still full of mystery but now becomes more of an action killing machine. He blows away a fat gangster with a vicious one liner, he treks the desert with Reyes and later dons a disguise to try and cross the border. At least Sollima and Sheridan maintain some semblance of realism, for example after Graver’s men blow away some Mexican cops, his superiors find themselves dealing with an international incident. We’ve come a long way from the days of “Man on Fire,” when Americans could rampage through Mexico with bazookas and not stir a peep.

“Day of the Soldado” pales in comparison to its predecessor, but it is still better than most of the other action movies being made these days. It has little to say about the drug war in Mexico, except that it’s violent, but when it puts thought into the story it offers a little more than just a standard cartel thriller. At the same time, when it wants to pump lead it does indeed become your run of the mill men with guns movie. But the casting is good, the visual style effective and the leads don’t have super powers, just super grudges.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado” releases June 29 in theaters nationwide.