Review: “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”

Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin in Sicario 2.

Of all the movies I would have guessed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” to remind me of, “Jackie Brown” wouldn’t have been one of them.

Hear me out. The second installment of the “Sircario” series is, underneath its sheen of gun violence and political intrigue, a hangout movie. It takes the two primary supporting characters from “Sicario,” Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benecio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick, and spends some time with them. In the first film, we mostly saw them through the eyes of an observer (Emily Blunt, who doesn’t return). Now they’re our eyes, and it’s good to see them again, but with that familiarity out goes much of the mystique that made the first an instant classic.

Gillick and Graver, unlike Tarantino’s verbose lowlifes, are taciturn drug warriors. Their battlefield is Mexico, presented here as barren expanses of desert populated by cartel goons and pathetic dirt farmers. Tarantino’s characters chat in diners and classic cars and grimy SoCal living rooms, whereas Gillick and Graver trade orders and status updates in armored humvees and helicopters and sleek government war rooms.

This time, they’re the architects of a false flag operation designed to start a war between the cartels. After an Islamic militant group crosses the Mexican border and launches an attack, the government, represented by a bloodthirsty pencil-pusher (Catherine Keener), goes on the offensive against the cartels. This entails the kidnapping of a drug baron’s daughter (Isabela Moner), drone strikes, and the slaughter of both corrupt Federales and cartel men. As in the first film, the script occasionally shifts away from the main narrative to follow a lowly participant, in this case a nervous teen (Elijah Rodriguez) looking to make easy money by becoming a cartel stooge.

The result replicates many of the pleasures of “Sicario,” though it lacks the electric tension and eerie amorality of the first. Without that, it suffers, relying almost entirely on Brolin and del Toro to carry the day. Certainly, part of the downshift results from the loss of Denis Villeneuve, the previous film’s auteur director who imbued it with special poignancy and menace. The sequel is in the confident but substantially less interesting hands of Stefano Sollima, whose presence here feels more like the work of a hired gun than someone with a deep connection to the material. Fortunately, the violence and ominous landscape are still rendered with clarity and a sense of beautiful desolation, this time by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski.

Returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan seems to have said what he wanted to say last time, but he can still deliver the goods with his two most memorable characters, who are nearly as captivating here as before. Both Graver and Gillick are rendered as big, ominous guys, more forces of nature than men. Sporting tricked-out weapons and military gear, they’re deeply unsentimental about violence while boasting keen intellects that serve as a force multiplier for their lethality. There’s not as much to think about, but when they’re on screen, it’s hard to look away.

“Day of the Soldado” makes no attempt to familiarize viewers with the events of Sicario, and in fact doesn’t even hint at them. Many expressed confusion when this was announced, as Sicaro wasn’t one of those films begging for a second installment, and, on some level, the filmmakers seem aware of this. They let us spend more time with two unforgettable characters, but they don’t have any more to say about them. It’s why “Day of the Soldado” makes for a solid companion piece, but not really a sequel.