‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

More than anything, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), the latest instalment in the nascent Sicario franchise, is a victim of circumstance.  The first movie, simply titled Sicario (2015), meaning “assassin,” came out in the midst of growing — but not yet so highly politicized — anxiety concerning the rise of Mexican cartels, the escalating drug trade across the US / Mexico border and increased human trafficking internationally.  This was before Trump, before “bad hombres” and before it became a matter of national policy to break up families seeking asylum and putting children in concentration camps across the country.

Sicario was free to simply tell its complex tale of moral uncertainty in an environment aware of the issues facing the border states, but not yet so lionized by them as to start trying to defend locking children in cages with smarmy slogans like “I really don’t care.  Do U?”  Not only did it have an intelligent, nuanced take on the subject via Taylor Sheridan’s excellent and morally ambiguous script, but the presence of director Denis Villeneuve behind the camera and A-list talent like Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro in front of it elevated what essentially amounted to a high-concept cops ‘n’ robbers movie to one of the best movies of 2015.

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

The film presented both sides of the border security debate in the form of its two lead characters: wide-eyed rookie Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and militant hard-liner Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).  Refusing to take the side of either of its leads, the film merely presented them and their actions in as detached a perspective as possible and let what transpired speak for itself (and in that way it is not unlike 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty).  It was clinical, damn near journalistic, in its approach to its subject matter and presented both sides in the sometimes flawed, sometimes ineffectual, sometimes reprehensible complexities that they exist as in the real world.

Quite frankly, it’s amazing that they made a sequel to that film at all.  Not because there wasn’t more to address in the increasingly chaotic realities of the issues it sprang from, but because they killed off one half of their binary leads and its increasingly must-see director opted not to return for a second take on the material.  Oh, and I guess the abhorrent and increasingly politicized state of its subject matter in the years since didn’t help things either.

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

And yet here we are, in the fallout of Trump’s “tender age” detention shelters, sitting down to watch a movie that not only addresses the issues of cartels, human trafficking and asylum-seekers’ desperate bids for the other side of the border, but whose sole remaining protagonist is the kind of “shoot first, ask questions never” strong borders zealot that is tearing children from their mothers and locking them in kinder-prisons.  And although Sheridan returns with another excellent, morally complex and far-seeing script that finds nuance in its increasingly delicate subject matter, Villeneuve’s tender hand has been replaced with a quite frankly untested helmsman who could honestly take the script either way at this point.  What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, despite everything stacked against it — from external politics to the difficult note its predecessor ended on — the film that we got is actually pretty good.  It again takes a largely birds-eye view of the issues surrounding America’s southern border by weaving together a series of (at first) unconnected stories featuring characters running the full gamut of moral complexity, ultimately bringing them together in a memorable climax and ending on a perfectly ambiguous note that echoes the last Sicario‘s conclusion.  Brolin and del Toro’s characters are back and as well-realized as ever, but joining with them are Elijah Rodriguez’s Miguel Hernandez and Isabela Moner’s Isabel Reyes, both of whom give truly remarkable performances that belies their age and filmographies until now.

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

The key to why this movie works now when it no longer has any right to do so in this climate and considering the talent that it lost along the way comes largely down to perspective.  Brolin’s Matt Graver is an unapologetically, uncompromisingly evil man.  Our introduction to him in this film is him cold-bloodedly murdering innocent family members of a man he’s interrogating and physically forcing the man to watch.  His mission in Mexico is to incite a war between Mexico’s rival cartels (an action that will undoubtedly and directly cause catastrophic suffering and loss of life) by extrajudicially kidnapping, detaining and jeopardizing the young daughter of one of the cartel leaders.  And in his final moments of the film, he is ordered to hunt down and murder a friend and colleague whose close associations with him over the course of the film has resulted in him seeing too much and ultimately proving to be a liability to the current political regime.

The most immediate comparison I can make to his character is that of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in John Ford’s celebrated western The Searchers (1956).  Edwards is enlisted after a group of frontiersmen, among them his niece, are abducted by Comanche raiders because he is the most skilled, experienced and all-around capable man to lead the rescue party after them.  But just because he is our ostensible protagonist, doesn’t mean at all that he is our hero.  He is a brutish, vile, racist and all-around evil man who is far more reprehensible than those he was recruited to track down.  It becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the movie that he is less interested in rescuing his niece as he is in using her abduction as an excuse to kill as many American natives as he can before he has to return home again.

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

This is Graver: Day of the Soldado‘s answer to Ethan Edwards.  He is just as detestable as the cartels he is set loose upon in the name of law, order and national security: a mad dog let off his chain by an administration more interested in “getting results” than in saving lives.  When strategizing about how best to go about inciting war between the cartels, he chooses not to kill off the carte’s leaders because, according to him, assassinating kings is how you end wars, not start them.  And that’s how he comes about his master plan of extrajudicially kidnapping a sixteen year old girl, transporting her across the border, staging a rescue from her supposed abductors and bringing her back to Mexico in the midst of pandemonic cartel warfare.  His methods are sloppy by design — intentionally endangering regular citizens — because it makes the deception that much more authentic.  He is a monster, and the movie knows it and refuses to let him off of the hook for it just because he’s our “hero.”

That’s the greatest trick that this movie pulls off over the course of its two hour runtime.  Macer might be dead and buried, but Graver (and his entire side in this debate) is treated no better because of it.  He (and it) is depicted as the same as it ever was, only now it’s not compromised by Macer’s stymying touch.  It is let loose in all of its disgusting, unapologetic glory.

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ — A Very Good Movie Released at a Very Bad Time

Day of the Soldado isn’t nearly as good as Sicario is.  Despite what it managed to make out of its unfortunate situation, I don’t think it ever really could have been.  Rather, it is a fitting and well-executed continuation of Sicario‘s story.  It examines the generational trauma and violence inflicted as a result of this conflict and is unflinching in its portrayal of evil men doing evil things in the name of decent ends.  If you can stomach a movie like this in today’s political climate, than you could hardly find playing at the box office.

Rating: 4/5

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