The first half or so of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (a clumsy retitling of the cleaner “Soldado”, lacking the embrace-the-shlock factor of something like “Sicario 2” as well) is a very worthy successor to the excellent thriller that was the first film. The first film was a perfect melding of two distinctive names in modern filmmaking – Denis Villeneuve, the post-Nolan golden child of thoughtful blockbusters, and Taylor Sheridan, the acclaimed neo-western writer-turned-director Taylor Sheridan, coming off his thematic “frontier trilogy” comprised of “Sicario”, “Hell or High Water”, and “Wind River”, the latter of which he directed himself.
The second half of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” makes me wish he directed this one himself too, as directorial story alterations saw a lot of the effectiveness and power of the film wither away as the film doubled down on its easier but less fulfilling sells – gooey character development for characters whose appeal came from having little, handwaves and plot shortcuts, and naked attempts at franchise-building. Directors obviously take precedence over writers, but while director Stefano Sollima here followed in Villeneuve’s footsteps more or less well (albeit dipping into uninspired mimicry at times, a feat shared by new composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who seems to eventually give up towards the end of the film, where Jóhann Jóhannsson’s striking score for the original film begins to be outright reprised), and even arguably executs the operator-style action sequences with greater gusto and impact, one yearns for a more measured sense of story control that’d ensure those action scenes are in service of a film with characters and story strong enough to give them real meaning.
There’s much to admire about the brutality of the original film. Reportedly Villeneuve cut 90% of the scripted dialogue for Benecio del Toro’s character (the lead in the sequel, owing to his breakout status from the first film, which gets undermined here as what made him appealing in that first film is muted here through shoving him into a protagonist position he doesn’t fit comfortably into, and by putting him through the motions of melodramatic character development and hackneyed plot theatrics), and heightened the brutality of the pivotal dinner sequence near the end of the film. That brutality was steeped in subtle recognition and understanding of human behaviour, the nature of institutions, and how dramatically important follow-through is in a narrative.
This sequel performs set-up very, very well, and even manages to work spinning out side characters as somewhat fitting protagonists without compromising all their traits that’d make them very difficult to write as protagonists in this sort of film, for a while at least, but it’s tremendously disappointing how the film seems to abandon any aspirations of realism (thematic or narrative) and goes for the easy story beats again and again in the third act. The ending is borderline incoherent coming off how fundamentally the film shifts gears past the midpoint. The first film was admirable in how lean it was, this one squanders retroactive subplots that seemed to be the entire narrative heart of the film with handwaving one-liners passing for political commentary.
It’s a well-made film in a lot of ways, but perhaps not in those that matter the most. Three tanks, and a bullet wound.