'Sicario: Day of the Soldado'
It was inevitable that ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ would pale in comparison to the masterpiece it’s a sequel to. Under the direction of Stefano Sollima (best known for helping translate ‘Gomorrah’ to a TV series), the follow-up focuses on a new kind of war of terror, taking the hitman storyline into new and even darker areas.
As a standalone piece, ‘Soldado’ would be a terrific entertainment. However, it unavoidably falters in contrast to the movie it follows. Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 ‘Sicario’ was one of the great films of the decade, a visual wonder shot exquisitely by Roger Deakins with a style that mirrored the varied morality of its characters. It was both a visceral, thrilling ride as well as a deeply intellectual rumination on the nihilistic responses to evil. Taylor Sheridan’s original script was given translation to screen by a director sympathetic to both its intimacy and its larger sequences, resulting in a work that enthralls no matter how many times you watch it.
While I don’t think the same effusive praise can be leveled at the second entry in the series, it does manage to succeed for the most part. Lensed by Dariusz Wolski, who has quite a storied career in both big and indie productions, the same dusty aesthetic that Deakins established continues. Sweeping helicopter shots and dramatic handheld scenes play out well enough, but like so much else about the movie, they come close to the original while not quite getting to the same level.
It’s likely an unfair comparison, but I couldn’t help thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in contrast to Peter Hyams’ ‘2010’. Taken on its own, the latter is perfectly fine if a bit simplistic and straightforward. The original, meanwhile, has moments of blissful, exquisite visual perfection wrapped in a story that’s meant to both engage and confound.
Several major components return in this ‘Sicario’, including the pitch perfect takes by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin reprising their characters as hitman and handler respectively. An opening sequence establishes a very different political circumstance at play. The additions of Mathew Modine and Catherine Keener work for the story, but their machinations make the film feel even more procedural and less timeless.
Huge credit goes to Isabela Moner playing the daughter of a cartel leader. As the princess of a crime family, she’s a firebrand of a character. Her ferocity is engaging, as is her eventual vulnerability as she becomes a pawn for larger forces. The character should come across as precocious or obnoxious, but instead she steals the show and is truly one of the highlights of the film.
Lacking the same degree of narrative focus, ‘Soldado’ feels like it has borrowed the tonal elements from the original film without picking up on its depth of introspection. Instead, we get some pretty powerful misdirects and bouts of visceral thrills. It’s not quite a fair bargain, but it would be unfair to dismiss those elements that truly do connect.
As it plays out, ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ is a solid action film with a bit of political and moral aspects added for flavor. But the original managed something far bleaker and more provocative. This sequel feels like it’s of the same world, a kind of spinoff from what came before that changes up the structure to drill down on some of the more overt elements of the previous movie. This does two things – it sets this sequel up for harsh scrutiny, and it reminds us just how damn good the 2015 film was.
We still have the original ‘Sicario’ to love nearly unconditionally, and this movie does nothing to get in the way of that feeling. It may not live up to what’s come before, but on its own merits it’s a respectable, smart action movie with enough bite to set it apart from much of the drivel we’ve been treated to lately. It’s a studio project that far surpasses much of its fellow summer movie competition, providing a dash of death, daring and depth, which is a welcome respite from the adolescent spectacle of the season.
There are certainly more stories to tell in the world that ‘Sicario’ set, and as a first step towards making this an ongoing series, Sollima provides a strong episode. It may not be as good as what it was birthed from, but accepting that fact frees one up to appreciate this film’s own unique charms, thanks to great actors, a good storyline and sympathetic direction.