There’s a scene at the start of Sicario: Day of the Soldado that is so patently ridiculous that it feels like it was ripped straight out of one of Donald Trump’s fever-tweets. The film, penned by the writer of the original, Taylor Sheridan, begins with a group of migrants being caught by the Border Patrol as they’re heading into Texas, and as they’re being searched, one of them begins to run away. He’s a man in his 30s or 40s, who falls to his knees away from the group of officers, and begins muttering “Allah akbar!” with increasing ferocity. He then explodes, having activated a suicide vest, and takes several of the officers with him. So yeah, it feels like Sheridan’s been reading a little too much Breitbart recently, and the whole of Soldado suffers because of his newly-blatant political leanings (though that might change with the benefit of hindsight around his other work) and the work of some really amateurish filmmaking. I really quite liked the first film, and this is an utter betrayal of every quality that film possessed.
With a spate of bombings occurring around the country, the government, represented by the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) begins to panic, and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is turned loose in Africa to find out exactly how it happened. In another scene that will probably require our President to get a clean pair of pants lest someone think he’s having an affair with an intern, Brolin, during an interrogation, orders drone-strikes on a pirate’s family until he gives him the intel that he’s looking for: The Cartels are behind the bombings (my audience cheered). This causes Graver to go back to Americas, where he reunites with Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the lawyer-turned-assassin who is trying to avenge his family’s murder at the hands of the cartels. So yes, the gang’s back together, minus Emily Blunt, who was too much of a weakling to endure what is a man’s job here out in those mean streets of Juarez.
Only this time, they’ve got the full-force of the American military behind them, and they want to turn the streets of Mexico into Afghanistan to let the cartels destroy one another. This involves a series of well-placed murders (Del Toro’s rapid-fire with the pistol that you’ve seen in all of the trailers is directed at a cartel lawyer), and the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the spoiled daughter of one of a cartel head (at one point, Jeffery Donovan’s character remarks that she has a 30-room mansion of her own). Shit goes wrong, of course, and Gillick is burned by the Americans — much to Graver’s chagrin — and forced to go it alone in order to get the child to safety.
The problem here, above anything else, is with the writing. Sheridan’s attempts at bleakness come across as juvenile compared to the plenty reasonable and realistic ethical conflicts with the first film, and almost all of the voices of the average Mexican citizen — a key but under-heralded part of that movie — are absent. I don’t want to overstate this, but so much of that film hinges upon the tragedy of the corrupt police officer and his family, but, aside from a deaf family that my audience laughed at, there’s really not very much here. Instead, we’re given horrendous stereotypes, as that storyline is replaced by the descent of a latinx American citizen into the human trafficking business.
His evolution from white-coded suburban kid to tattooed gang-banger is straight out of the MS-13 propaganda that blares all day long on Fox News (unironically name-checked here as a potential source of media scrutiny for Brolin and company after an engagement with the Federales leaves a whole lot of dead cops on a dirt road), meant to drive home a central point: you’re just never gonna know which one of Them is working for those cartels. It could be your next door neighbor’s kid, or one of those migrant children trying to cross the border. Might be best to lock ’em up, right?
Again, so much of Soldado‘s garbage politics could be forgiven, at least, for being slick exploitation if the filmmaking were quite up-to-snuff, but when you replace a director like Denis Villeneuve with a TV director like Stefano Sollima, who occasionally apes the prior filmmaker’s style before retreating to a hyper-generic aesthetic that makes the whole thing look like a CBS TV show. I kept waiting for Mark Harmon to pop up and arrest Brolin for some sort of sadistic crime, but no dice. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, sadly, is no substitute for Roger fuckin’ Deakins, and the two have very different theses about how to use digital cameras.
The moments of life that we do find are fleeting: Del Toro’s nonchalant attitude towards throwing a grenade out of a car window and Sollima’s documentation of the ensuing carnage, Brolin’s sarcastic “Fucking Mondays, huh?” to Catherine Keener while he’s patching himself up after a mission goes FUBAR. Those delights are few and far in between, and instead, the film is just wall-to-wall generic horseshit. Even when Sollima and Sheridan try to draw some life to the proceedings by paring Del Toro up with the kid alone, like every other father figure/child media released between 2015 and now, it just feels forced and empty, this also being one of those movies where a rich kid has to learn how good they have it by having straight-up terrible psychological damage inflicted upon them by any number of screenwriter concoctions.
So, Soldado sucks.
It’s about as bad of an idea as something like 2010: The Year We Make Contact, but without the pleasant surprises or, you know, the quality of that film. It puts on full display the falsehoods inherent in so much of the critical discourse around Sheridan’s work, and now gives so much material to dispel any potential ambiguities that the first one had. There’s no interrogation of the politics on display here beyond “tough situations require tough action,” and it’s honestly fascinating to think that this dude is being heralded now as the mature voice of American masculinity in the screenwriting profession. It’s ethically fucking bankrupt, terribly assembled, and, worst of all, eminently forgettable. What a waste.