New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Sicario: Day of Soldado

 (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures via EPK.tv)

SICARIO: DAY OF SOLDADO–3 STARS

Last time around, Denis Villenueve’s Sicario was kind enough during the opening credits to provide a pointed definition behind its unique title term. Learning the zealot origin of the assassin label set the proper ominous tone of the threats that await. We’re not so lucky with the sequel bearing its name-recognition mouthful title of Sicario: Day of Soldado. That means it’s up to the school teacher to grab the chalk and write this one out on the blackboard.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF “SOLDADO”— As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary states very plainly, a “soldado” is “a Latin-American soldier.” In the words of Yul Brenner’s Rhamses II from The Ten Commandments, “so let it be written, so let it be done.” For those who need to keep things spelled out in a literal fashion, yes, the sicario factor still comes into play, but, no, this film doesn’t take place in a single day. Sorry.

In the meantime, welcome to more of the military arm than the seedy and sandy landscapes that shocked and awed us nearly three years ago. Looking at the resumes, you might ask how this sequel can continue at a high level to come anywhere close to the five-star 2015 film without Villenueve at the helm, masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins lensing the arid canvas, and the spine-tingling musical moods from the now-deceased composer Johann Johannsson. Well, it does in some respects and doesn’t in others.

Luckily, this cinematic cactus retains the nectar at its core underneath the lesser spiny exterior. Sicario: Day of Soldado still has dynamic screenwriter Taylor Sheridan scripting the suspense and the twin returning brutes of Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin to shoot and punch the lights out. Following his Oscar nomination for Hell or High Water and his superior directorial debut of Wind River, Sheridan is on a hot streak and pens a worthy follow-up to what should have been his first Oscar nomination a year prior to the one he received.

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An attempt to implant a drug cartel coup is the epicenter of endangerment for Sicario: Day of Soldado. The U.S. Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) wants retribution against the Reyes criminal organization that smuggled a trio of ISIS suicide bombers into the country from Mexico before orchestrating their brutal and public attack. Seeking the efficient best for dark ops south of the border, the CIA calls upon Matt Graver (Brolin, unequivocally the ruler of the 2018 movie summer). He receives an open checkbook and all the loose latitude necessary to destroy the cartel from the inside with the at-all-costs warning that any actions cannot be linked to the United States. Graver’s first recruiting pick goes to the real sicario himself, Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), who has a long-standing beef with the Reyes cartel that killed his family.

Their plan stirs from Graver’s allegorical riff of “kidnap a prince and the king will start the war for you.” The false flag operation is to stage the abduction of the Reyes drug lord’s daughter Isabela (Transformers: Last Knight cast member Isabela Moner) and make it look like the job came from a rival competitor. The hope is that any incited cartel war would wipe out the wealth and channels for terrorism from all involved. Also, and much like the previous film, there is a not-so-random commoner’s thread woven through this film that will prominently come into play before the bloodshed ends. This integral part comes from newcomer Elijah Rodriguez’s Miguel. The kid is a hate-filled immigrant Texas teen who is dropping out of school to help with his cousin’s well-paying and stature-vetting human trafficking racket.

LESSON #2: SMUGGLING PEOPLE IS A BIGGER BUSINESS THAN DRUGS— Immigration is as timely an issue now as it was three years ago for Sicario. The ugly underbelly here shows how the most profitable commodity coming or going over the border is people, not drugs or other goods. Both sides of this problem, the illegal acts and the deputized enforcement, count as dirty business. Take stock of that and then reflect on the news headlines from the last few weeks.

Naturally, the mission does not turn out the way it was drawn up and the errors could cost lives when fated paths intersect. Alejandro finds himself playing protector for the mark more than hunter while Graver deals with government oversight in the form of Catherine Keener’s profanity-laced suit. Mettle crosses with metal with the bullets are loosed with deadly intent.

LESSON #3: DON’T F — K WITH BENICIO DEL TORO— Gladly reprising this life lesson from Sicario, the Traffic Oscar winner is absolutely magnetic in each and every scene he occupies. Del Toro continues to exude the menace of being ready for outright murder equivalent to those “Kill You Cat” memes. What continues to impress is his calmness within a character like this that should be unhinged in a deranged fashion. He remains high on the list of cinematic presences and badass MFers you don’t ever want to cross, no matter the character.

It may not be Deakins and Johannson, but the visual and aural presentations of Sicario: Day of Soldado are still sternly solid. Frequent Ridley Scott cinematography collaborator Dariusz Wolski is no slouch in his own right and deftly brings out a shot variety ranging from surveillance drone distances to face-to-face splatter. Composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, a discipline of the late Johannson, is an able replacement to hammer our temples with a haunting dirge of a score. Both artists operate with game and grim sharpness. Director Stefano Sollima (Suburra) captures Sheridan’s twisted narrative and tightens the screws deftly where he can. Something heightened, though is missing.

Even with those strong returning and reworked cinematic components, the end result is noticeably short of the choking anaconda of Sicario. The disquiet in not unnerving as we, as stated at the beginning, follow a soldier instead of an assassin. Sicario had a visceral allure that made throats close, jaws drop, and hair stand up. One key element that helped that effect was how us uninformed or non-versed viewers at that time attached to Emily Blunt’s rule-following straight arrow descending into the muck. We had someone to picture as ourselves, and her new experiences were ours. Sicario: Day of Soldado, try as it may, does not reach that same level of grip or connection. Aiming for at least a trilogy, this is a second film that should be raising stakes not stalling them. The promise of a third is still plenty intriguing.

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LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#705)

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