'Sicario: Day of the Soldado' in the Shadow of Emily Blunt and Denis Villeneuve

Emily Blunt Sicario - Photofest - H 2018
The sequel is missing some of its key collaborators, and it shows.

[This story contains spoilers for Sicario: Day of the Soldado]

In 2015, the brutal border-set drama Sicario did well with critics as well as audiences, even garnering a few Oscar nominations. The film’s reception was in no small part thanks to the fact that its depiction of the fractious war between American police and Mexican drug cartels was framed through the perspective of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Blunt’s performance, much like the character being used as the focal point, was a large part of why Sicario worked as well as it did. So her absence in the sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, suggested some cause for concern. Day of the Soldado is indeed a step down, but not just because Blunt’s nowhere to be found in the new story.

Also a cause for concern was the absence of original director Denis Villeneuve, who has become a distinctive auteur in the making. Though he’d directed a few French-language films earlier in his career, once Villeneuve jumped to the States to helm films like Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, his acute sense of crafting unique visuals coupled with his collaborations with cinematographer Roger Deakins made him a filmmaker to watch. Unfortunately, while new director Stefano Sollima tries to ape Villeneuve’s and Deakins’ style, his attempts feel hollow and unsuccessful.

At first blush, some of what made Sicario visually notable is present again in Day of the Soldado, where Sollima is working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. The film opens with a nighttime depiction of illegal immigrants trying and failing to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, with static shots of helicopters flying overhead. Such shots are mimicked throughout, akin to how Deakins used drone cameras for the original Sicario. And there are a number of shots depicting a realistic point-of-view of satellite cameras, as well as some night-vision shots a la the original. The purpose is simple enough, to create a you-are-there feeling with an urgent, immediate style of filmmaking. So Day of the Soldado feels, from a surface level, similar enough to its predecessor. But even though Sollima tries to copy what Villeneuve brought to the original film’s visual presentation, it all feels like a pale shadow of that earlier story

The timing for this film could not be worse; the current debate over illegal immigration in the United States is at a disturbing fever pitch. There’s the specter of unconscionably cruel family separation at the border spurring on major protests across the country, coupled with the Supreme Court’s recent reinforcement of the travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East. Even though the filmmakers behind Day of the Soldado had no control over the release strategy and their film’s placement in the current news cycle, watching a film in which American police and military engage in firefights with Mexican police officers in the pockets of drug cartels is doubly unpleasant now.

Yet even removed from its present context, Day of the Soldado is a nasty, scattered piece of work. Much of what occurs in the film is removed from the events of the first Sicario, though both were written by Taylor Sheridan and feature a handful of the same characters. Kate Macer is neither mentioned directly or implicitly, and the few times that the backstory of the implacable Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) is mentioned, it’s done so obliquely via dialogue that sounds like it was recorded after principal photography concluded. 

Where Blunt was the guiding force throughout Sicario, Day of the Soldado is aggressively, obnoxiously macho. Alejandro is once again called into action by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who’s been tasked by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to covertly begin a war between two major drug cartels in Mexico as a form of retaliation for a vicious terrorist bombing that occurs in the opening minutes. Graver gets Alejandro involved so he can help kidnap Isabel, the feisty teenage daughter of one of the “warring” Mexican drug lords, hoping to convince said drug lord that his rival is behind the kidnapping. Quickly, the plans spiral out of control to the point where Graver is told to remove as many witnesses and extraneous elements as possible, including the drug lord’s daughter. However, Alejandro becomes unwilling to kill the girl, because…

Well, that’s unfortunately not remotely clear. It is exceedingly warped for Alejandro, who literally kidnaps the teenage girl, to transition into a reverse Stockholm Syndrome, all the more so because Sheridan’s script doesn’t comment on this profoundly icky scenario. It is perhaps worse, and even more inexplicable, that by the final scenes, Graver displays a semblance of a conscience despite having no reason to do so. (And despite the fact that Graver didn’t have anything close to a conscience in the original film.)

It’s also inexplicable that the film’s setup is quickly squandered: at one point, a government official (Catherine Keener) offhandedly mentions that two of the terrorist bombers from the opening moments were American citizens, without the script being willing to acknowledge how much thornier that makes the situations depicted onscreen. And the war between drug cartels is essentially abandoned before it starts. When it’s revealed that Mexican cops are in the pockets of the cartels, it serves as the foundation for a shootout sequence, and is never brought up again.

Throughout Day of the Soldado, Sollima tries to bring a sense of grittiness to the proceedings. The outdoor settings in Mexico are lit a sickly yellow, and a number of the action sequences feel like the product of yet another filmmaker who remains in awe of Alfonso Cuaron’s gritty Children of Men. They comprise a number of longer-than-you-might-expect shots that seem to exist solely so anyone with a sharp eye can note how long the shots themselves are, instead of serving the story. But the gunplay depicted is mostly bloodless, mirroring the lifelessness at the core of the story. Without the emotional core represented by Blunt, Sollima can only depict the gruff and mostly amoral men whom she was surrounded by.

Perhaps a sequel to Sicario was never going to work without Blunt as the lead, or at least as a supporting character. Day of the Soldado is, though this isn’t the worst of its many problems, frustratingly skimpy with its female characters. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in the middle of beating up a girl in her prep school, suggesting that she’s plenty tough and self-reliant. But as soon as she’s kidnapped, Isabel turns into a fairly bland damsel in distress, carted around by one man or another. What we have with Day of the Soldado is a film that seems especially repugnant in light of current events, something that feels soulless and empty without the emotional core that made the first film so interesting.