Sicario: Day of the Soldado is an empty, exploitative exercise in machismo filmmaking
When it was released in 2015, Sicario was a surprisingly astute exploration of what it means to sacrifice your humanity in order to combat an equal evil. It played out more like a horror film than it did an action thriller because the perspective of Emily Blunt's Kate Macer allowed the audience to experience the shady dealings of the nihilistic spooks she was working with (Josh Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War and Benicio Del Toro, Traffic) through her often disturbed eyes. We understood that these men represented the darkest corners of American foreign policy, a game in which rules are bent to the wills of those willing to cross the line to protect the interests of our government, however crooked they may be. It served as a sobering reminder of our role in the international sphere as a police force who often abuses its power.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is not that intelligent, and it doesn't appear it has any intention of trying to be.
The film follows Brolin's and Del Toro's characters Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick as they embark on a new mission to shake up Cartel activity in Mexico. After discovering that the cartels are smuggling ISIS suicide bombers through Mexico and over the border for profit (yes, really), the government gives the pair and their team full authority to orchestrate a war between the cartels as a form of damage control. When their plans go wrong, the resulting carnage creates a rift between the two men that forces these former partners to become enemies.
What's most shocking about the film is its proclivity for fear-mongering, Trumpian politics, as we see the worst nightmares of his administration graphically come to life on screen as we watch smuggled terrorists blow up a supermarket in one of the first moments of the film. The resulting ugly actions of the protagonists could be seen as a refute to the kind of response Trump would want for such an attack, but when you realize most of this film is just a rather dumb and boring collection of shootouts, it becomes clear screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is more interested in forcing "hell yeah!" responses to his character's machismo moments than he is about raising any interesting criticisms of them.
While Graver and Gillick were once fascinating representations of what could be if we allowed the misguided realpolitik that defines our country's approach to international threats continue to evolve, their portrayals are now far less layered. That would be passable if the film was aiming for pointless, popcorn violence, but instead it's so convinced that its lazy political scare tactics have something to say that it's even more disappointing when it sinks in that it doesn't have anything interesting to say at all. It becomes clear that the gaze of Blunt's character, which drove home in the previous film how horrible Graver and Gillick truly are, is a vital element that is sorely missed. Playing these events through the two men's eyes paints them less as boogeymen and more like the antiheroes of the louder, dumber Rambo era.
All the more shocking is the fact that both films were penned by Sheridan, who seems to be banking on all his worst qualities as a screenwriter in Soldado. It's wildly confusing that he would backpedal so far away from the themes of his first film in exchange for the grim muscle-flexing of this entry into his "saga", leaving behind his knack for ponderous, old Western-style dialogue seen in Sicario and the often brilliant Hell or High Water for the cheap pulp on display here.
We are at a dark crossroads in our country's history. It seems ignorant at best, exploitative at worst to release this film when outside the theater we are watching as immigrant children are separated from their families and our government uses acts of terrorism more as a means to confirm the worst kinds of ideologies rather than treat them as outliers born out of rampant hatred, not religion or culture. We cannot expect cinematic conversations surrounding these issues to be perfect, but we should expect them to be responsible, and Soldado wields that responsibility with a reckless disregard for what the real world may have in store for us if its violent fever dreams come true.