Actor Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a screenwriter with 2015’s “Sicario,” a twisted tale about the U.S. government’s complicated relationship with Mexico, the southern border and drug cartels. The morally bleak “Sicario” was a unique example of modern political noir. Sheridan has returned for the sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” with Italian director Stefano Sollima taking over directing duties from Denis Villeneuve. The world expands in this follow-up, but it’s just as cynical and hopeless as we remember.
Broadening this universe serves these characters and the larger message Sheridan wants to impart. It’s just a message of utter political hopelessness. We link up once again with mysterious government operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), after a brutal ISIS-style terrorist attack in a grocery store in Kansas City, Mo.
He’s a mercenary, hired to stage dirty, dirty acts of political theater — classified, of course. And for this case, he’s been contracted by a bunch of white-haired stuffed shirts with medals on their chests to find anyone who enabled the suicide bombers, who crossed into the United States via the Mexican border.
Graver’s task is to cause chaos among the cartels, who control the border, making them easier to strike. He hires his best sicario (hit man), Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), and they set out to kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of cartel kingpin Carlos Reyes.
The fact that revenge for Yemeni terrorists lands on heads of Mexican narcos is part of the film’s absurd irony. The terrorists are soon dropped, as the kidnapping plot goes awry and Graver’s mission is spiked. A small coincidence involving border coyotes sets off a series of increasingly ugly events, and both Alejandro and Graver are pushed to the brink. They are cool under fire, and always coldly tactical, but “Day of the Soldado” tests the outer limits of that boundary. They even manage to display some small moments of emotion and trauma.
Sollima’s style is cool and observational, bearing witness to incredible events. Camera movements establish spatial relationships between the characters and the incredible violence around them. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski uses horizontal pans that both follow and anticipate action. The camera observes unobtrusively, and its restraint mimics the emotional restraint of the characters, who go about their dark business with a sense of black, deeply ironic humor.
There are several stunts combined with camera movements that are genuinely jaw-dropping, including a sequence where Army helicopters chase down a truck on a lone desert road, as well as a repeated motif of wild car stunts captured from inside a vehicle. It puts the performers close to the action and underscores the sense of realism and ever-present danger.
“Sicario” felt topical at the height of panic about narco violence creeping over the border. But “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” feels even more urgent, bringing to mind the current crisis of deportations and detention centers. What resonates even more is the nihilism of a government operating violent shadow operations without much sense of purpose or seemingly any moral code.
It’s appropriate that Emily Blunt’s character from the first film doesn’t return for the second. The FBI agent who wanted to do the right thing has no place in this world. With her moral compass out of the picture, the audience shoulders that burden. There are no heroes in these films. Graver is a highly paid assassin who uses irony and strategy to dehumanize his victims. Alejandro is motivated by his past but bottles up his emotions to fuel his killing. Perhaps he’ll get out of it, you think, but he doesn’t, just working to set up the next generation. This cycle of violence is bleak, dark and never-ending, and the only way off the ride is death.