REVIEW: 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado' misses the mark

 Benecio Del Toro returns as the mysterious hitman Alejandro in  Sicario: Day of the Soldado , directed by Stefano Sollima.

Benecio Del Toro returns as the mysterious hitman Alejandro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, directed by Stefano Sollima.

There were two reasons given why Emily Blunt wasn’t needed to reprise her role as FBI agent Kate Macer. One, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan felt her character arc was complete so she served little purpose, and, two, director Stefano Sollima decided against having a character serve as the moral compass. Both understandable reasons, but both stories also end up being lesser stories without her. Whatever. I’m over it already because there were other things that irked me in Sicario 2.

The sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s crime-action-thriller reunites CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, who’s having a fantastic year) and black ops hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). A group of suicide bombers are suspected of entering the U.S. through the U.S.-Mexico border, where cartels have made business trafficking humans, and in response the CIA decides to conduct a false flag operation and spark a war between two rival cartels. Graver kidnaps Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel kingpin, as part of the plan, but in an ambush by corrupt Mexican police, the plan goes awry and both Graver and Alejandro are forced to use damage control.

 Josh Brolin returns as U.S. government agent Matt Graver.

Josh Brolin returns as U.S. government agent Matt Graver.

By now, we know what we’re in for with Sheridan. The film will be dark, gloomy, tense, violent and occasionally uncomfortable. In that, Sicario 2 certainly succeeds. The cast, which introduces Catherine Keener as Graver’s handler, Matthew Modine as the Secretary of Defense and an expanded role for returnee Jeffrey Donovan as Graver’s right-hand man, are welcome additions. Brolin is at his give-no-fucks, all-American machismo best and Del Toro is both terrifying and sympathetic as the tortured, puppy-eyed sicario. Moner, who played another feisty young girl named Izabella (we need new names) in Transformers: The Last Knight, takes over Blunt’s position as the lead female POV character and does an admirable job filling the shoes.

Where the film falls apart is in its pacing and scope. There seems to be two distinct films in here; there’s a black ops espionage thriller pitting the talkers in suits versus the doers in camo, and another which weaves a slow burn tale of a hitman who is forced to decide between the mission or the moral high road. The turning point of the film occurs when the ensuing political mess of a mission gone wrong requires Alejandro to kill Isabela, but both he and Graver refuse the orders. It is here where Sollima, who had before been adamant about not including Blunt because he didn’t want a moral compass guiding the audience, fails to realize that he betrays his goal.

 Catherine Keener as Cynthia Foards.

Catherine Keener as Cynthia Foards.

Blunt is the moral compass in Sicario because she believes in doing things by the book, but quickly realizes that the book doesn’t matter in the field of action when split-second decisions have to be made. But the world Villeneuve crafted is brutal, and so her character is completely worn down and beaten by the end. In Sicario 2, although Del Toro and Brolin reprise their roles and play characters who don’t play by the book, both end up serving as the film’s moral compass in their unified attempts to save a girl and to protect her from the cartels and corrupt government officials. The hardened old men of action do have soft hearts, after all. And in the hot, unforgiving deserts of Texas and Mexico it certainly invokes images of Logan, which also dealt with a nihilistic old man who refuses to live by the rules but also ultimately walks down the road of redemption and compassion.

The violence in Sicario 2 is ruthless, but it’s far less effective that the previous film. While Villeneuve manages to stay on single thread and pull it taut, Sollima’s tale sprawls out in all sorts of directions, and even abandons the film’s original line of questioning dealing with Islamic fundamentalists and suicide bombings. There’s plot continuity errors and a sequence in which Alejandro achieves superhero-like status, and it’s at that moment Sollima forsakes realism and turns the film into a fable, falling into the trap of making its heroes infallible, something Villeneuve never tried to do.

There’s a third film coming and the second was good enough to keep me interested, but, please, let’s not let this spiral into Taken.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado gets two and a half stars out of four.

 
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