BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s mesmerizing 2015 Academy Award-nominated meditation on the US government’s invisible war with the Mexican drug cartels, isn’t the kind of film that leaps to mind when you think franchises. But the original story of one FBI agent’s descent into the Hell of south-of-the-border gangland drug warfare was populated with such uncommonly rich and dense characters — courtesy of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s boffo script — that audiences simply demanded more. Directed by Stefano Sollima (Suburra), Sicario: Day Of The Soldado traffics in subject matter that could’ve easily been exploited for simple shock value but instead delivers complex character deconstructions of those unfortunate enough to be involved in this brutal conflict, further dissecting the fascinating relationship between CIA ghost Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the Sicario Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro).
Soldado could easily operate as either a prequel or a sequel to Sicario since we don’t have an exact bead on the timing. After a suicide bomber detonates at the Mexican border followed by an attack on a Kansas City grocery store by a trio of suicide bombers, the US connects the dots that the cartels are smuggling in terrorists. The logic here is that fear drives up the need for drugs, which has fallen to Mexico’s second most popular illegal import behind human trafficking. In retaliation, the US government declares the cartels terrorist organizations and recruit Matt Graver to start a war between the two ruling factions in Mexico. Graver brings in Alejandro to assist in the black op, which entails kidnapping Isabela Reyes, the daughter of the leader of the Reyes Cartel who was responsible for killing Alejandro’s family, and pinning it on their rivals. After a double cross by corrupt cops in Mexico threatens to expose the US government’s involvement in the kidnapping, Graver is instructed to cut all loose ends and kill both Alejandro and Isabela. As the operation crumbles at the foot of the world stage forcing Brolin’s character to choose between his country and his friendship with Alejandro.
Where the first film dealt with one female agent’s tumble down the moral rabbit hole into the lawless world of these black ops with Matt Graver and Alejandro in the shadows. Soldado brings the pair to the forefront and lets them loose in Mexico, with the US Government charged with stopping the two from escalating their cartel war into a shooting war between the US and Mexico. It’s a gritty, testosterone-filled edge-of-your-seat ride, with del Toro once again turning in a darkly complex and tortured performance against Brolin’s dry humor and grizzled delivery. Stefano Sollima drops the arthouse pretension of Villeneuve’s original, instead delivering a hard-hitting intelligent action/thriller. What I loved about Sicario: Day Of The Soldado is the same thing a lot of folks are not going to like about it: it’s a much different film, setting the stage for a new cycle of violence that promises the kind of death and destruction once relegated to ‘80s action cinema, but absent the schlock and the hackery that characterized much of Reagan era cineplex fare.