Sicario: Day of the Soldado – movie review

by James Robins / 11 July, 2018

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The drug war hots up, this time with a teenager as collateral.

In three films released since 2015, writer Taylor Sheridan crafted a triptych of American decay: Wind River, Hell or High Water and Sicario. They are defiantly bleak and unashamedly male, but show an understanding of the degradations of history: despondent cops and righteous cowboys adapted for a new, less heroic age.

Sicario was the best, not just because Sheridan was aided by director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It traversed the US-Mexico border in pursuit of drug cartels, with Emily Blunt’s indignant officer embroiled in a dark CIA plot to restore the Medellín gang to supremacy. It was a throwback to the Iran-Contra days, when the Reagan Administration trafficked in mullahs, death squads and cocaine, and got away with it.

Sicario was boldly cynical and uncompromisingly violent, and its sequel, Day of the Soldado (also written by Sheridan, but directed by Stefano Sollima), doubles down on both the cynicism and the brutality. Without Blunt, there isn’t any innocence to be lost. There are no good guys, and there’s certainly no redemption.

Establishing a tone of despair and depravity, the film opens with a raid on migrants crossing the border. One of them breaks away, utters a prayer and blows himself up.

Cut to Kansas, and a horrible sequence in which three jihadists, ignoring the pleas of a mother and daughter, commit murder-suicide in a crowded supermarket.

The US Government’s response is no less bloodthirsty. CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin) and Medellín hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) pair up again, this time to extrajudicially kidnap a cartel boss’s daughter (Isabela Moner).

If Day of the Soldado has any heart, it is in Moner’s performance: wide-eyed and almost serene amid the chaos. But even she is not free of violence, slapping around a fellow schoolgirl.

Any parallel or comparison drawn between this film and the present political situation is stretched and superficial. We’re in the realm of the bloody thriller, not the piercing, prescient documentary. (For that, see Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land.)

The plot, the kind of deranged, right-wing conspiracy theory about which disgraced actor Steven Seagal recently wrote a novel, is something of an insult to Sheridan’s tense, uncluttered narrative in Sicario.

And yet, something about its nihilistic cynicism feels entirely apt. After the carnage, gunfights, executions, and a grenade casually tossed into a pursuing vehicle, the characters are left to look on the dusty aftermath. They gaze around and, for a moment, wonder if there’s any point to it.

Video: Sony Pictures Entertainment

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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