Sicario: Day of the Soldado' is a bafflingly unnecessary sequel that somehow still works

By Leigh Monson
    The original Sicario is a tight, brutal story that is perfectly bookended by the despairing realization of its protagonist, played by Emily Blunt, that she has been only a pawn in a game of perpetual warmongering by the CIA against Mexican drug cartels. It's a story that starts and stops with Blunt's involvement, motivated by a character realizing the depths of depravity her government will stoop to.
   This is why the notion of franchising this particular film is so bizarre. Blunt is no longer attached, and neither are director Denis Villenueve or cinematographer Roger Deakins, the two individuals most responsible for the bleak, oppressive atmosphere of the original. And yet, somehow, returning writer Taylor Sheridan made something that totally works as a thematic complement to the first Sicario, even though Day of the Soldado probably would have been better served by not being a Sicario film at all.
   Day of the Soldado returns to CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) as he is tasked with covertly provoking a war between the Mexican cartels so that, as the United States reclassifies the cartels as terrorist organizations, the US can fight against mutually weakened enemies. Given license to take whatever off-the-book tactics he deems necessary, Graver reenlists assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to help abduct Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of the largest drug kingpins in Mexico, with the intent of framing a competing cartel. However, the operation encounters unforeseen complications that place the relationship between the US and Mexico in jeopardy.
   In terms of capturing the bleak tone of the original Sicario, Day of the Soldado is a surprisingly effective facsimile. Director Stefano Sollima is no Villenueve, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no Deakins, but the pair manage to compose shots and compel performances that are nearly as gorgeous and intense as their predecessors. Brolin and del Toro slip back into their roles with stunning ease, embodying the cold brutality that personified them as the anti-heroes of the previous installment and somehow turning that into an energy that paints them as protagonists if not exactly good guys this time around.
   It's just a shame that in tying this film to the plot and characters of Sicario, Day of the Soldado suffers for being both a retread and a film that actually works better if you aren't already familiar with Graves and Gillick as characters. Day of the Soldado plays a game with audience perception for the first hour or so, presenting the CIA's covert war creation without explicit judgment, leaving it open for supporters of America's world policing to read the film as politically aligned with themselves, only to pull back the curtain to show the consequences of these actions in a way that is explicitly critical. It's a gambit that mirrors the first film remarkably closely, which is all the more impressive given there isn't a morally centered audience point-of-view character this time around.    
   But if you've seen the first film you already know that Graves and Gillick aren't good people and are motivated by jingoistic and vengeful causes. For fans of Sicario, the opening hour of Day of the Soldado feels like a betrayal of the first's message, only to loop back around into a reaffirmation that, while offering the expected bursts of bloody brutality, feels somewhat redundant.
   Still, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a very solid film from start to end, only stumbling slightly in a bid to set up yet another sequel. It's a good film that seems like it might have existed as its own entity in an earlier draft of the screenplay, and if that version had been made it might have been a great film, nearly on par with Sicario. But the film we have, as improbable as it might seem, works on its own terms and delivers a good sequel to a film that never should have received one.

3.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.