It is nigh unto impossible for a sequel to be judged on its own merits, entirely divorced from the movie that preceded and begat it. Taylor Sheridan, screenwriter of neo-Westerns Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River understood that well when he titled his Sicario sequel Soldado. He felt that the movie should exist in the same “world” as the previous film (bringing with it the holdover characters played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, most notably) but not be burdened with the expectations of a straight-up sequel. The producers and distributors disagreed, fearing that the movie needed concrete ties to the first to be successful. Hence, the unwieldy title Sicario: Day of the Soldado was chosen. Ironically, Sheridan should have been more concerned with his actual screenplay, which borrows scenes and ideas from the first film willy-nilly, failing to put a fresh spin on them. And while the first Sicario was surprising, intense, and satisfyingly ambiguous, Day of the Soldado is murky and unsatisfying, weirdly settling for its role as a faded carbon copy.
It is hard to know if the movie would have worked better had it existed before Sicario. Though the story, about Brolin’s Matt Graver’s attempts to start a cartel war to help stop terrorists from crossing the border, weaves in and out of effectiveness, the motivations of all of the main players are fuzzy at best, culminating in choices that seem to fit nothing that came before. The script definitely keeps the audience guessing but sometimes at the expense of believability. For instance, the final scenes are interesting and chilling, but hard to reconcile with what came before. It does not necessarily help that Brolin and Del Toro are good, always, but not quite as good as they have been in other projects (including Sicario). Both are such great actors that they are still endlessly watchable, but they seem to be falling back on the recognizable choices they made in the first film (Brolin with the gum chewing, the fast talking, the practiced casualness; Del Toro with the soft-spoken intensity and the never smiling) and assuming the audience is bringing the previous movie’s backstory in with them to the theater. Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Knight) gives the most impressive performance, creating a fully-realized character out of her limited screen time, suggesting both the prestige and the fear that come with being the daughter of a drug cartel kingpin. She is often running away, screaming, or simply worrying but she manages to imbue it all with a weary reality, using her eyes and mouth to great effect, especially in later scenes with Del Toro. A viewer may wish the movie had focused on her more, allowing the character to breathe or even take over the movie. Sadly, she functions mostly as a MacGuffin, allowing the above-the-title men the ability to wrestle with morality and the effects of violence.
A lot of the trouble in Soldado comes from the loss of some of the brilliant cast and crew from the first. Emily Blunt, so effective as the moral audience surrogate in Sicario, is absent here, and the movie’s resonance has disappeared with her. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), the director of the first, has yielded to Stefano Sollima, who does a passable job, but appears to be parroting Villeneuve’s style. Likewise cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Dark City, Sweeney Todd), who seems to be content attempting to be Roger Deakins, which feels odd, given Wolski’s impressive pedigree. Soldado borrows the night-vision gimmick, so effective in Sicario, and puts it to much blander use. There are multiple scenes of fast-moving caravans moving fluidly toward their eventual destination, with the pacing cluing us in that the journey will not go off without a hitch. There are some well-lit, evocative scenes, to be sure, but none as vivid as what Deakins created consistently in the earlier film. And though Johann Johannsson, the composer of the first film’s score, has passed away since the initial film was released, it still feels forced to ask Hildur Gudnadottir to basically recreate Johannson’s bass-heavy score. Whereas the score in Sicario made every scene drip with dread, Gudnadottir’s score sometimes seems repetitive and thoughtless.
Sheridan once again showcases his gift for wallowing in the morass of moral ambiguity. The characters’ choices are free from the moral restraints most humans apply to their decisions from minute to minute. Graver and Alejandro care only about the end goal that they must achieve and nothing about the collateral damage they might create. Some nebulous topicality is introduced, as well, as the story hinges on illegal immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border, but most of it feels like window dressing as opposed to the actual thrust of the story, which wants us to root for the violent and calculating men killing whoever gets in their way.
For a huge fan of the first movie, like myself, the biggest sin of Soldado is the wasted potential. Sicario was dazzling in its brutal efficiency and logical in its cutthroat surprises. Soldado brings intermittent intensity and some of that same brutality, but at the sacrifice of the story and without striving for its own voice. The movie is by no means a bad one; it is simply a disappointing one. With the talent involved and the legacy of the first film to borrow from, this could have been a thoughtful and invigorating follow-up. As it is, it feels like a flawed attempt to expand the franchise. Ultimately, the choice of title — with its blatant reference to its predecessor — was an appropriate one, even if it also serves to leave the audience longing for the masterful power of that first film.