‘Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado’ wisely shifts its focus to Benicio Del Toro’s hitman

When Denis Villenueve’s Sicario debuted in theaters a few years back, the film gripped you hard with its opening scene. A task force raiding a house with large amounts of drugs buried inside–along with a lot of dead bodies. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s blunt force trauma introduction set the stage for a special experience: an action thriller that cared more about integrity to the genre than an individual moviegoer’s feelings.

The sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, sticks to that strategy and delivers another nail-biting on the edge of your seat thriller that is equal parts exhilarating, brutal, and just harsh enough to make you cancel that trip below the border. Directed by Stefano Sollima-another European filmmaker with an eye for the morally corrupt world of Mexican cartel clashing with the badges who try to stay clean-Sicario: Day of the Soldado aims to hit you over the head with the butt of a cinematic shotgun. It succeeds.

The story picks up not too long after the original left off. Gone is the morally immovable C.I.A agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and returning are the dynamic cartel fighting duo in Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, a hulking presence per usual) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). When a terrorist attack strikes down in a Kansas City grocery store and reveals the Cartel is smuggling terrorists in through the border, the United States government thinks it’s time to take the gloves completely off. This means enlisting the skill set of Graver, which is empowered by the enigmatic yet deadly Alejandro.

The thing that made the first film work so well was not knowing where Del Toro’s “ghost” stood in the battle between the cartel and the American law enforcement. A man who has lived in both worlds and betrayed terribly by one side doesn’t wear a specific jersey and play for one team. He slices like a hammer through whichever side has stung him hard enough. This twist and turn act continues in Soldado, which feels like a setup for a third film.

When Graver and his team decide to kidnap the cartel boss’ daughter, Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner from Transformers: The Last Knight), in order to disrupt things, matters escalate and once again, the audience won’t know who to trust-which makes the viewing experience that much juicier and worthwhile.

Alejandro and Isabela get split off from the team, and this allows for character growth with Del Toro’s shady character that the first film simply didn’t have time for. You won’t know what his intentions are until the very end, and the fact that he’s traveling with a golden time bomb in the kidnapped young girl will help and hurt his chances for survival.

All the while, Brolin’s lawman is being tested from above by his superiors (Catherine Keener and Matthew Modine putting in good yet predictable work) and his loyalty to Alejandro, a man he has depended on for years through countless missions yet one he knows can stand on his own two feet.

From there, things keep going wrong, more twists and turns are introduced, and a little revenge-fueled finale makes the film end with a bang instead of a preachy thud. If the movies have taught us one thing, it’s that Mexican cartels are bad business no matter how much dark exists in your soul. Watching the characters dance around their moral compass is a good time at the movies.

Here’s the thing: in the first film, Blunt’s Kate was our point of view. She was there to be our eyes and ears in a deadly world, but this time she is gone, so it’s on us to walk through the haunted house without an aide. If Villenueve’s film opened the door to show us how bad things could get, Sollima’s follow-up shoves us down the stairs to reveal what is truly going on in the war on drugs and terror. It turns out there is really one war-and it’s got more to do with bodies than exotic powder.

The cast is uniformly solid. Brolin is having a career year, playing villains, anti-heroes, and soldiers of different fortune and identity. Sheridan could have written Graver as a corrupt government hammer, but he knows how great of an actor Brolin is, so he plays with the dice before throwing them. Del Toro can translate a page of dialogue with a single stare, a tactic that Sheridan and Sollima wisely incorporate into just about every scene he’s in. The actor has played both sides of the law in the world of film, from Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic to these two films. Del Toro was brilliant in The Usual Suspects, but he’s come a long way since then.

The real star here is Sheridan and his ever-expanding story. Instead of writing films that are happy to eat one meal and go to bed, the storyteller is playing the long game and building a trilogy that will only get more deadly and entertaining with each entry. It wasn’t easy to lose a gifted auteur like Villenueve and move on to a new chapter with a different director, but Sheridan’s muscle car is good enough that pretty much any filmmaker with a keen eye can drive it. Sheridan has given us Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River (which he also directed), and now Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Here’s the good thing: I believe Sheridan is merely getting warmed up.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado is an entertaining action thriller with depth and conviction, which isn’t easy to come by in Hollywood these days. You don’t need to be convinced that this world is juicy enough to watch yet deadly enough to stay far away from. Sheridan, Brolin, and Del Toro have created an exotic playground for entertainment. Let’s put it this way: Fight Club is no longer the only film to feature a lead character take a bullet through the cheek and soldier on for redemption.

All bets are off in this world and with Sheridan driving the bus, I’m strapped in and ready for more. Watch Sicario if you haven’t and then immediately buy a ticket for this merciless sequel.

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