2015’s Sicario was not a movie that begged for a follow-up. Seeming at first to be a feds-vs.-cartels action movie, what it turned out to be was something a little different: a persistently downbeat indictment of the drug war as a cycle of nihilistic violence and moral rot, rooted by Emily Blunt’s performance as a fledgling drug investigator who is progressively repulsed by the unscrupulous methods of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro.
It’s not exactly great fodder for an action franchise—but that’s what Sicario: Day of the Soldado tries to give us, ditching Blunt but retaining Brolin and Del Toro. They were moral monsters in the first film but return here as something more akin to badass antiheroes. The film embraces everything the first film rejected. It’s as if Conrad had written a sequel to Heart of Darkness in which Kurtz was alive and well, an action star kicking ass in the Congo. Problematic? You betcha.
The film’s premise is a Trumpian jumble: illegal immigration at the southern border leads to a brutal jihadist attack in Kansas City, after which it is discovered that the Mexican cartels have added transporting terrorists to their usual program of drugs and human trafficking. The attack allows the U.S. Secretary of Defense—Matthew Modine looking very convincing as a grim authoritarian—to classify the cartels as terrorists and give Matt Graver (Brolin) carte blanche to strike back. The plan hinges upon Graver and his friend Alejandro (Del Toro) provoking a war between the cartels, running black ops in Mexico that break a host of international laws. Ultimately the plan begins to go awry after Graver and Alejandro seize a cartel leader’s daughter (Isabela Moner).
The story—about which I won’t reveal anything else—is somewhere between a mess and a little dull; it’s not always clear why certain people and groups are doing what they’re doing, but at the same time you find yourself struggling to care. The film’s gestures toward topicality are ham-handed and muddled. Everything from illegal border crossings and terrorism to presidential impeachment shows up in the script, and what began as pure conservative fear- and revenge-mongering takes on some hints of lefty complexity as the film wears on—but none of it really adds up to anything. The most—and worst—you can say about the film’s political relevance is that its scenes of poverty, cartel violence, and border lawlessness are probably what Donald Trump sees when he closes his eyes and thinks of Mexico.
In spite of all these problems, the film has a certain aesthetic power to it, even as what’s on screen doesn’t pop intellectually. The picture leans liberally on the reliable, forbidding beauty of sandswept locales, convoys of lumbering humvees, and helicopters banking against the sun. Men in the movie are always going somewhere, gearing up, piling onto or out of vehicles with guns at their side, or staring manfully toward the desert horizon, tormented by some vague something: pain, sin, revenge, a code. These brooding slabs of actorly muscles and their deadly toys are compelling, even if the drama they’re employed in is a little dopey. This isn’t exactly an insult; Michael Mann, whose influence is all over the film, has made a respectable career exploring the stylistic combinations of vaguely tormented men, military hardware, and gorgeously-photographed landscapes, even as the quality of the stories has varied. But it remains true that what gravitas Sicario: Day of the Soldado possesses is largely Pavlovian, constructed of Brolin and Del Toro’s masculine star power, an ominous score, and a culturally-conditioned awe of violence, guns, and military might—everything the previous film rejected.
When I think of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, I’ll always think of a particular scene, featured prominently in the trailer. Alejandro has found someone, a cartel member who is on his revenge list. He shoots the guy, but not just once—instead he uses the forefinger of his free hand to fire off a dozen shots in rapid succession. It’s dumb when you think about it; the guy is dead, Alejandro can’t extra-super-kill him by shooting him more, or more quickly. But that’s not the point. The point is how Del Toro looks when he fires off all those shots. So it is with the film: empty, but really fucking cool.