Sicario: Day of the Soldado screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who started out as an actor (Sons of Anarchy), has emerged as a true Hollywood rarity. Not only has he written some of the best movies of the last few years — Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016), Wind River (2017) — he is single-handedly keeping hope alive for the intelligent, character-driven, mid-budget action drama; the kind of noir that made the ’70’s so special.
Better still, the Texas-born Sheridan gets us, and by “us,” I mean people who live a hundred miles from the coasts. Don’t confuse that sentiment with some sort of sloppy, patronizing view of “flyover country.” The Oscar-nominee respects us enough to tell it straight: we are good people, some of us are great, and we are certainly the ones who do most of the fighting and dying for this country — too many of us, though, like our drugs, and way too many of us like our shopping malls.
Most of all there is the double-edged sword of our rugged individualism. While our refusal to be a squeaky wheel is certainly a virtue, it also allowed floods of illegal aliens, corrupt corporatism, and the nuke of globalism to catch us unaware.
Three years ago, Sicario was the unicorn movie lovers dream of. That one-of-a-kind feeling of falling in love with something totally unexpected; the perfect storm of a crackerjack script, Denis Villeneuve’s brilliantly original direction, otherworld cinematography by Roger Deakins, and an Oscar-nominated score courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson (who died unexpectedly in February at 48).
The cast was just as impressive, offering Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Jeffrey Donovan wonderful opportunities to play driven professionals who contain their explosions, suppress their emotional lives, and peel away endless layers through presence and action, as opposed to exposition.
I have now seen Sicario four times, and I will probably watch it again this weekend.
So maybe my expectations were too high going into Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which is so much less. Whereas Sicario is pure cinema, a must to watch on a big screen, Soldado feels like the kind of disposable genre movie Netflix produces to watch at home.
Taking over for Villeneuve is director Stefano Sollima, an accomplished television director, which becomes sadly obvious within five minutes. Gone are the exquisite long shots that added so much by removing emotion. Gone is the ambivalence, the sterility that drew us into this captivating subculture. Gone are the grace notes, like Blunt watching cartel “fireworks” from a rooftop while stealing a smoke and that perfectly-realized subplot involving a doomed Mexican police officer.
Worse still, gone is the exquisite tension that came from the wonderful disorientation of trying to figure out where we were, what was going on, and who to trust.
The real loss, though, is Blunt. Not to take anything away from her performance, but it was the presence of her character that made it all so intriguing, most especially Brolin and del Toro. Through Blunt’s constantly caught-off-guard outsider, we experience this deadly, efficient, and sadly necessary government faction through her eyes, and this made Brolin’s flip-flop wearing spook and del Doro’s child-killing assassin endlessly intriguing; two mysteries you never want solved.
Soldado solves them. This is their movie, and the movie is the lesser for it. Instead of watching them, we are with them, and the gripping enigma drains away.
Soldado’s heart is in the right place. This is, without question, a two-hour commercial for Trump’s border wall. As with Sicario, we are watching a Hollywood product with the moral courage to tell the truth about just how deadly our southern border is, this poorly guarded frontier we share with a failing and corrupt country; millions of square miles of desert where desperate Mexicans are exploited by godless coyotes who see them only as contraband.
The story opens with a group of illegals pounced on by U.S. border patrol. One blows himself up with a suicide vest. Islamic prayer rugs that have no business being in the middle of the desert foreshadow a heart-wrenching suicide bombing in, of all places, Kansas, a place so American Superman was raised there.
Terrorists pay Somali pirates to look the other way, and after they arrive in South America, the budding suicide bombers are hustled across our border courtesy of Mexico’s vast human trafficking infrastructure, which is run by the cartels. The Kansas bombing allows the U.S. president to declare the cartels a terrorist threat, which allows for all kinds of black bag activity. But….
How do we avoid another Iraq, escape an endless guerilla war? How do we go to war with Mexicans in Mexico without going to war with the Mexican government?
Enter Brolin’s aptly named Matt Graver with an idea so dumb, were it not for the Deep State’s Keystone Cop attempt to frame Trump as a Russian spy, I would not have believed it: kidnap the daughter of a cartel leader, blame it on another, and hope they wipe each other out.
Naturally, things go horribly sideways, but they also go kind of nowhere. Soldado is much more interested in setting up the next chapter than it is in delivering a satisfying story.
The movie has its moments, but nothing knots your guts or surprises, and the action scenes are not only far and few between, you have seen better on Netflix.
Soldado is competent, uninspired, never boring, never compelling, and nothing special.