Brutal drug wars sequel keeps things bleak

Back in 2015, the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario offered up a raw narrative on the escalating war on drugs on the US/Mexico border. Penned by Taylor Sheridan, the film presented the odd relationship between Josh Brolin’s CIA operative Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s brutal enforcer Alejandro. After suffering a personal tragedy in the drug wars, former lawyer Alejandro has become a calculating killing machine striking back at the cartels under Graver’s loose control.

Against that setup, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Macer served as the audience’s surrogate and moral compass. Consistently bewildered and shocked by the brutal methods that Graver and Alejandro employ. Macer is put through a harrowing crucible that doesn’t lead to much in the way of happy endings.

For a piece of cinema, Sicario had much to recommend it. Denis Villeneuve has an eye for breathtaking cinematography, something he also delivered in Arrival (see the Wavegirl review) and Blade Runner 2049. The soundtrack was also penned by Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose mastery of sound offered some unsettling compositions to complete the picture (in particular, ‘The Beast’, which soundtracks one of the film’s finest set pieces).

Sicario: Day of the Soldado offers a second instalment of the story, although Emily Blunt’s character doesn’t return for this outing. Instead, there’s more of a focus on Graver and Alejandro’s strange partnership and a plot revolving around covert methods of sparking wars between the various Mexican cartels.

If the film has any moral centre, it’s through the eyes of Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner). The daughter of one of the cartel’s leaders, Reyes is the centre of a complicated kidnapping plot that drives the film forward. Meanwhile, through Reyes, Alejandro’s humanity resurfaces when he’s tasked with taking care of the drug lord’s daughter.

Villeneuve hasn’t returned for this segment, but director Stefano Sollima does a serviceable job at keeping the style and mood of the first film present and correct, Meanwhile, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir delivers a gritty soundtrack worthy of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (a composer that Guðnadóttir had collaborated with previously).

On release, Day of the Soldado drew some criticism from what some perceived to be stereotypical portrayals of Mexicans as being simply brutal cartel operatives. It also drew fire for its similar portrayal of Muslims as being purely terrorists. In truth, writer Taylor Sheridan’s far-fetched plot point about Islamic terrorists using Mexico to enter the US is more a case of bad timing given the current political climate. As a result, Day of the Soldado can at times look like a gung-ho political statement supporting the misplaced paranoia gripping parts of the US.

But as with Sicario before it, there’s precious little in the way of any characters without flaws. Certainly, the US mission masters (led by Matthew Modine) don’t emerge as heroes and are oblivious to the carnage their actions cause – until they’re likely to be compromised.

While a broader narrative could be employed to explore the war’s effects on ordinary Mexicans (which the film does touch on via the trafficking of people across the border), it would divert from the character-driven narrative that occupies Day of the Soldado.

Indeed, it’s the Graver/Alejandro dynamic that sits at the heart of the film, something which is put to the test halfway through. Josh Brolin (who is doing a fine job with nuanced villain roles in the likes of Avengers: Infinity War) does sterling work crafting the disturbing ‘any means necessary’ character of Graver. Benicio Del Toro, meanwhile, offers a slightly softer take on the cold hitman he delivered in Sicario.

Day of the Soldado isn’t quite on the same level as its predecessor. The excellent Isabela Moner is criminally under-used – and there are a few moments in the film that do seem to drag on too long. But there’s enough startling set pieces (and one surprising twist) to keep things interesting. With suggestions that a third instalment may complete the story, there does appear to be plenty of scope to explore other ideas in this grim world.