Guns blazing as Del Toro and Brolin work the border
Sick as it sounds, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the lucky beneficiary of every belligerent tweet, crying child and political point scored in the chaos of the current Mexico/U.S. border crisis.
At its mean, snakelike best, it’s also a brutally assured commercial action picture, unburdened by the moral qualms or unnerving ambiguity of its predecessor.
Both factors may help it find a larger international audience than “Sicario” (2015), written, as is the sequel, by Taylor Sheridan. He’s the man behind the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water” (2016) and “Wind River” (2017) as well. His scripts make a strong argument for Sheridan being the premier Western revivalist in American movies.
The two “Sicario” films represent different ventures. The new one makes no room for an ethically conflicted female protagonist — Emily Blunt’s FBI agent in director Denis Villenveue’s original.
The “Day of the Soldado” subtitle makes it plain: The righteous U.S.sanctioned warriors played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are running things now, mowing down drug cartel goons and Mexican federales with impunity while revealing their softer, more caring sides along the way.
The prologue sets the stakes, and plays like the stray imaginings of our current president. Along the Mexico/U.S. border, a cartel-paid coyote leads a group of migrants across a river. U.S. border patrol helicopters and ground vehicles prepare for another roundup. One migrant, however, is revealed to be a MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, bloody images, and language) Running time: 2:03 Opens: Friday suicide bomber.
This is followed by a second terrorist attack on American soil, inside a store in Kansas City. For a few excruciating seconds, director Stefano Sollima’s camera lingers on a mother and a child, on the other side of the sliding glass entry doors, pleading for their lives. Ensuring the audience will consent to every form of retaliatory good-guy violence, these early sections know exactly what they’re doing, for better or worse.
A hardened black ops specialist, CIA agent Matt Graver (Brolin) gets the go-ahead from his superiors to provoke an intramurual war among the powerful cartels. Graver reteams with Medellin attorneyturned-assassin-for-hire Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro), whose family was wiped out by a rival kingpin. The mission: kidnap a drug lord’s 12-year-old daughter, Isabela (Isabela Moner), frame a rival gang for the kidnapping — and watch the ensuing carnage.
But there are personal reckonings en route to “mission accomplished.” A Mexican ambush on the kidnappers leaves blood all over a stretch of rural highway. The horrified Isabela takes off, with Alejandro in pursuit. The hit man (aka “sicario”) had a daughter of his own, once, and in Isabela he sees a surrogate and a chance at redemption.
The solid if unspectacular box office success of the first “Sicario” wouldn’t typically merit a follow-up. But Sheridan and his producers sensed a hunger for a straight-up genre exercise. Already some have declared it superior to the original. I’m not one of them, though Brolin and Del Toro are first-rate. I first saw “Day of the Soldado” four months ago, well before the wails of children separated from their border-crossing families were heard around the world. I saw it again the other day. Its newly acquired topicality lends an air of inflated importance. It is, after all and finally, content to do its dirty job well enough, before moving on to the next mission. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Benicio Del Toro stars in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”