Crossing the Line One Too Many Times
At the start of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, I was skeptical. Twenty minutes in, I was hooked, interested, and tentatively hopeful. About thirty minutes later, around the hour mark, I was worried and growing increasingly disinterested. By the time another half-hour had passed, I was more than ready for the film to be over. Day of the Soldado’s problems are many, but perhaps its biggest one is that it doesn’t deliver on any of its promises. Not only the promises made in the film’s opening act, but also the implicit promises of attempting to follow up one of the best action-thrillers of the past decade.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a direct sequel to the excellent 2015 film Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, of Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 fame. Day of the Soldado, however, is directed by Italian director Stefano Sollima. In the film, Matt Graver, played by the returning Josh Brolin, is hired by the American government to start a war between the Mexican cartels after the President re-categorizes the drug-runners and people-smugglers as terrorist organizations. Graver once again enlists the help of Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro and hatches a plan to kidnap Isabel Reyes, young daughter of cartel kingpin Carlos Reyes. After the kidnapping, Alejandro and the young girl form a tentative, semi-professional bond, and, as Graver’s plan begins to implode, their story clashes with that of Miguel Hernandez, a young, dual-citizen on the border being pressured into the life of the cartel by his cousin.
It’s clear that the filmmakers understand what made the original Sicario great, because they spend much of this film attempting to imitate it. And, to their credit, they pull it off every now and then. There are a couple of sequences in Sicario: Day of the Soldado that are just as bite-your-fingernails-off tense as certain ones in the original film. Unfortunately, this is only the case for a select number of scenes. The rest of the time, Day of the Soldado feels like a cheap imitation of Villeneuve’s film.
If there’s one thing that makes the original Sicario so good that this film simply doesn’t understand, it’s pacing. It’s both what sets the sequel apart from a typical, run-of-the-mill action film and what drags it down, keeping it from being a better film. The original Sicario is such a slow burn; it’s a thriller in the truest sense of the word, and categorizing it only as an action film would be doing it a great disservice. Day of the Soldado attempts to replicate its pacing, taking the time to set up individual moments as well as the story overall. If it’s anything, it’s different. There’s fewer fast, jolting edits than there might be in the hands of another director, and, for most of the first act, it seems as if the film might just succeed in what it’s trying to do.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the film, the uneasy, on-edge responses that the first film could produce are gone, and instead, Day of the Soldado becomes neither good nor bad, but boring. The story drags on far too long, meandering in a way that isn’t necessarily bad, just uninteresting. You’re not waiting on the edge of your seat for the next scene more than you’re wondering how much more time the current one will eat up. If a film is going to pace itself in such a way, it has to pay off and release the tension in the second and third acts. Day of the Soldado doesn’t succeed in this at any level.
The other big thing the film is missing is any sort of small-scale, personal stories set amidst the bigger, multinational ones it attempts to tell. In the original film, this role was of course filled by Kate Macer, played by the fantastic Emily Blunt. The way that character was written, aided tremendously by Blunt’s performance, grounded Sicario in a way that made all the large-scale action seem all the more deadly and real. Not that every film requires it, but there was someone to root for. And yes, perhaps comparing Day of the Soldado so closely to the film it’s following sets it up for failure from the beginning, but it’s so clear that the writer and director attempted to strike that personal chord once again and failed, more than once.
Both Isabel Reyes and Miguel Hernandez are examples of this. Both characters’ arcs are attempts at telling the stories of those who are caught in the crossfire of the border war, the victims instead of the perpetrators. Neither is particularly effective. Elijah Rodriguez’s performance as Miguel leaves a bit to be desired, and Isabel, whose story is essentially the basis for the whole film, is difficult to pin down. One moment she’s a confident, smart-talking young girl and the next she’s a crying mess. The problem isn’t that either side of her character isn’t realistic in concept, it’s just that neither one is rather convincing.
With this film, writer Taylor Sheridan has made his first major misstep in his feature film writing career. His previous works (Sicario, Hell or High Water, and last year’s phenomenal Wind River) are all celebrated by critics and fans alike. When this film was announced there was clear hesitation at the lack of Villeneuve as director, but knowing that Sheridan was still on board eased the worries of many fans, including myself. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do nearly enough to save this film. The hard-nosed, slice-of-life characters from his previous films are nowhere to be seen, replaced by movie stars with cookie cutter personalities or nameless characters with none at all. In Hell or High Water for example, every character, down to the bankers and the waitresses, felt like real people in a living-and-breathing world. In Day of the Soldado, this realness isn’t even noticeable in the leads. Both Brolin and del Toro give technically competent performances, but neither one of them is interesting in any way. They’re just robots reciting the less-than-stellar script, and there’s no heart put into either of them.
In fact, there’s not much heart anywhere. True, at times, Day of the Soldado is as unforgivingly gritty and challenging to watch as its predecessor, but that has nothing to do with how hollow and empty the film comes off. The root of the problem is that Day of the Soldado shouldn’t have been made, and, to be honest, I’m still not very sure why it was. Not once does the film justify its existence. It doesn’t continue any stories we care about, it certainly doesn’t introduce any new ones that we should, and it doesn’t even come close to matching the technical intricacies or prowess found in the original film.
If a few details were to be changed and the film was called by another name, Sicario: Day of the Soldado could have been a well-above-average action thriller. There’s a story to be told here that, at its core, is actually interesting. I’d argue that it’s one that even needs to be told, as certain aspects of the story couldn’t be more timely if they tried. There’s a good movie hidden somewhere in the two bloated hours that make up Day of the Soldado, but the issue is that, like me, Stefano Sollima and the rest of the crew behind the film couldn’t quite find it.