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Movie Review: ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ marks itself as a still-brutal, distant follow-up

Movie Review: ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ marks itself as a still-brutal, distant follow-up

Director: Stefano Sollima
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Elijah Rodriguez

Synopsis: The drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the U.S. border. To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver re-teams with the mercurial Alejandro.

“No rules this time,” said the poster and later repeated by the open-toed CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Since that isn’t the last time it’s referenced, the rejection of principles can be classified as a motif. One of many, of course; showcases of the desert and Mexico as hell’s downtown also come often.

Thing is, the previous mission, the one in 2015, wasn’t exactly a thumper, so “again” sounds like a goof. Or is this rulebook-shredding thing has a meta touch to it, how it invalidates the “three-parter” vision of Taylor Sheridan-written’s “frontier trilogy”? Regardless, when it comes to mining more shine from Matt and also-returning hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), it’s best to consider the viewers who may feel blindsided. And when the main task is to legitimize the new op, or somehow make the heart link up with the left-field workings, Sicario 2, or Soldado, or — inhale — Sicario: Day of the Soldado, responds with static.

As with Sicario, bombs detonated on U.S. soil kickstart the battle of the ongoing drug war, but this time they are wrapped around people rather than locked beneath a shed. The explosives can either be a part of the border crossers or the group who entered a grocery store. The need to dramatically overreact again arises, and so the DoD — actually has a face this time, that of Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) — designates Matt, and afterward he to Alejandro, to get things done. What was planned is this: kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner, electrifying), the cosseted daughter of a cartel leader, under the guise of a rival gang so the factions tear themselves, and their businesses, apart.

Since Matt and Alejandro debuted as deliberately inscrutable badasses, having them as protagonists, or actually men on a mission, in Soldado invites awkwardness. When the mission goes wrong, as it has to, Alejandro and Matt are forced to play a game of chicken with Isabel at the center; the aesthetically wolfish sicario sees her as a victim while the person who hires him is forced to treat her as a loose end. There’s no denying that Brolin, Del Toro and especially Moner bring only premium spark to the frame, but their respective character’s reconstruction of a moral compass is toothless next to Kate Macer’s loss of it. Call her a refresher, tour guide or audience surrogate, Kate is the reason we enlist; her annoyances at the system, rebellions and, mainly, defeat mirror that of us. No such bridge exists in Soldado, and if you’re thinking Isabel is one there’s a chance you were distracted when the principal’s office scene, or her intro, plays out.

The damaging coldness also resides in Sheridan’s at-first-unrelated narrative about Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez, acute), an aspiring and taciturn trafficker. This is Soldado’s “Nogales” story with the subtext drained, giving more time of day for garish brutality rather than spiritual toll. At least director Stefano Sollima excels in this aspect, and despite a different set of eyes he showed willingness to readjust them so the film belongs in the Sicario universe — callbacks to Denis Villeneuve’s steady, near-serene style are often heard, which aid a couple of the set pieces. A move most gracious, yet not the one needed.

Much like Sheridan’s writing here, and hopefully it’ll be the only anomaly, Sollima’s coverage of Soldado scrubs many areas and always removes the psychology. There was no attempt to dive a bit deeper into the unfoldings, to see which corner they inhabit within the grander, and topical, fabric. All the elements can’t thicken themselves as a result, and among them one is (the terroristic threat) a case of gross misapplication and another (pressure from superiors) is talent-wasting stuff. Sorry Catherine Keener, yet not so to the milquetoast POTUS whom your character Cynthia disapproved of. Whereas Sicario assumes the swagger of a thinking actioner, all Soldado does is staying active to a ruinous degree. The larger it grows and the longer it paces, the more it loses its grim-but-reverential tang in the first place.

At least Dariusz Wolski’s photography and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, along with Del Toro’s perpetually hypnotic bearing, preserve the original’s imprint (Guðnadóttir is a frequent collaborator of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) so not all is lost. Still, they serve as a reminder that the hitman’s pre-soldiering days are of better standard.

Overall Grade: C-

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