One can easily make the argument that this movie shouldn’t exist. How many people were calling for a sequel to “Sicario” in the aftermath of its release? Even if someone was keen on a follow-up, did they want to see it sans star Emily Blunt? Throw in the fact that director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins weren’t returning? That doesn’t even consider how the late Jóhann Jóhannsson wouldn’t be on hand. All of that suggests leaving well enough alone. And yet, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” works. Having the original writer back to pen the sequel goes a long way. So does giving returning characters more to do. This isn’t the stunning success of the original, but it’s still a solid film.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is very much the Taylor Sheridan show. Quickly becoming one of the industry’s best scribes, Sheridan expands on the “Sicario” story. This script isn’t on the level of “Hell or High Water” or “Wind River,” but it’s still lean, mean, and very effective. Credit must go to him for finding a way to tell this next chapter in a way that feels organic. Whether this is a cash grab or not, it never feels like it.
Picking up a few years after the original, we’re reintroduced to federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) as he’s investigating a tie between terrorism and drug cartels. As this is going on, he’s summoned by Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) to Washington to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine). The U.S. President is about to list cartels among terrorist organizations, so Matt is recruited to stir up some trouble along the Mexican border. Essentially, the government wants him to create war between the cartels. To do this, he’ll team back up with Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but more importantly, he’ll need attorney and all around badass Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).
Matt and Alejandro form a plan that involves kidnapping Isabel (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a drug kingpin. This particular cartel head also happens to be one of the men responsible for the murder of Alejandro’s family. When things go sideways, Foards and Riley want Matt to abort the mission and sever ties with Alejandro. The latter, in possession of Isabel, doesn’t want the same fate as his daughter to befall her, so he ends up on the run. It all leads to a wild ending that sets up a potential third installment.
Both Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are given way more to do here in this outing. Sure, the latter had a mysterious and captivating supporting part originally, but in this one, he gets to be front and center. As for the former, Brolin has more shades added to his nearly villainous character. It’s a bold move to make you see both the good and bad in each one. Brolin takes a backstage to del Toro, though both are at the top of their respective games. On the flip side, another plot thread surrounds Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a teen roped into the drug trade. Of course, his story runs into the main one, but it’s a weaker link. Rodriguez is fine, but unspectacular.
Returning player Jeffrey Donovan is again a sarcastic compadre to the main two players, while newcomers like Catherine Keener and Matthew Modine are wasted. Isabela Moner mostly just has to be horrified at the violence around her, and in that sense, she’s pretty good. Also on hand are Bruno Bichir and Shea Whigham in small parts.
Stepping in for Villeneuve, director Stefano Sollima keeps a lot of the aesthetic in place. Having Jóhannsson’s colleague Hildur Guðnadóttir step in to do the score makes it sound pretty close to “Sicario.” No one can match Deakins as DP, but Dariusz Wolski is no slouch. These slight downgrades are survivable because the talent involved is still pretty solid. An early sequence set in Kansas City brings together Sollima and Wolski in a brutally intense way. Moreover, having Sheridan at the keyboard is why this succeeds truly. He gives his creations enough to do that you’re also left more than willing to see a third installment.
All in all, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the rare unnecessary sequel that still carves out a niche for itself. If there’s a disappointment to be found here, it’s that the flick leans more into action than drama or social commentary. It’s still a very timely film with something to say. Sheridan makes sure of that. If you enjoyed the first movie, this offers up a slightly different version of all that. It’s well worth seeing, especially since it ends on a note that makes a trilogy a fairly compelling proposition.