Review: 'Sicario' sequel solid, but no 'Sicario'
In 2015, "Sicario" snuck up behind moviegoers like an assassin in the night. A high-powered action flick directed with meditative grace by Denis Villeneuve, the film about drug cartels at the U.S./Mexican border was a surprise hit and secured a spot on many critics' year-end Top 10 lists.
Few saw it as the start of a franchise, however, but as the border has become a focus of the daily news debate, it makes perfect sense to revisit the world of the film. And while "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" packs nowhere near the same punch as the original film, it has a pensive power all its own.
Josh Brolin, already having a billion-dollar summer as part of "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Deadpool 2," returns as flip-flop wearing government agent Matt Graver. Graver, whose government clearance allows him to work around bothersome trivialities such as rules and laws, is sent to the border to deal with an influx of terrorists via Mexican drug cartels, so he enlists the help of his old pal Alejandro Gillick (a chilling Benicio del Toro, reprising one of his best roles), the baddest dude on either side of the border. (Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya, who in the first film played a pair of rookie FBI agents -- as well as the audience's conscience -- are nowhere to be seen here.)
In order to rile up tensions between Mexican gangs, Graver and Gillick head up a mission to kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the teenage daughter of a powerful Mexican drug lord, and make it look like the work of a rival crew. When the mission goes bad, Graver orders Gillick to dispose of the girl; when he refuses, Gillick is on his own to navigate his moral path in a place where the only truth is survival.
Even as debates over a border wall have raged in the news since the 2016 presidential campaign season, filmmakers – Italian director Stefano Sollima steps in for Villeneuve, while writer Taylor Sheridan ("Wind River," "Hell or High Water") remains – couldn't have guessed that the week their film is released that the border would be the hottest issue in the news. While the kidnapping aspect of the film does involve the separation of a child from her family, "Day of the Soldado" deals with a different brand of border drama than what's on the nightly news, although the opening scene of Mexicans sneaking across the border in the dead of night put the film in a hyper-modern context (and terrorists sneaking across the border should confirm all the worst fears of a certain sect of the population).
Brolin is equal parts cocky and conflicted as Graver, who's used to working his own way (in his world, orders take precedence over rules), but "Day of the Soldado" is del Toro's film, and we get to learn what makes his icy lone wolf tick. Sollima stages several tense action sequences, including one shocking daytime shootout, and he delivers them with serene grace.
Still, one decision regarding del Toro's character nearly derails the film in an attempt to mythologize him and turn him into an invincible comic book character. Thanks, but we have other films for that. "Day of the Soldado" is at its best when it sticks to its own raw brand of truth.
'Sicario: Day of the Soldado'
Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, and language
Running time: 123 minutes