The most underwhelming film of the year

The first Sicario was a pleasant surprise back in 2015. An atmospheric character drama about moral degradation, it was one of the first of the new wave of U.S.-Mexico border dramas to get popular, and at the time its vision of Mexico as a nightmarish hellscape felt fresh and comparatively innocuous. Its sequel however comes into a very different world.

Shortly after the first film, this movie drops Emily Blunt’s character to focus on Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an amoral CIA operative, and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a one-man anti-cartel death squad, as they attempt to start a war between the cartels. After one cartel smuggles several ISIS suicide bombers into Texas, the US government designates them terrorist organizations and sends the CIA to destabilize the country. The two plan to begin by kidnapping a drug kingpin’s daughter (Isabella Moner), but everything quickly goes wrong.

With Denis Villeneuve gone, this new entry is directed by Stefano Sollima, the main director of the Gomorrah TV series, who is vastly out of his depth. I have absolutely no clue what the hell kind of point this movie is trying to make. There is no understanding on display of how to frame a story visually to communicate ideas and perspectives, and the whole production looks like an expensive TV movie. The visual language is very simplistic, with plain compositions and barely passable lighting.

In television this is less of a problem, as the acting and writing carry most of the weight, but with a script this minimalist the audience are left with almost nothing to go on. Few scenes manage to communicate anything more than what is immediately happening, and it ruins the film’s ability to make any kind of point whatsoever.

The script is also very confused. Brolin and Del Toro’s characters, who in the first movie were almost symbols of types of horrible people who fight these kinds of wars, are here made more sympathetic in ways that feel blatantly false. In the second half of the movie Del Toro’s character begins to feel very protective of the girl he helps kidnap, but for no reason other than that the plot requires it.

Politically it’s not very astute either. The ISIS suicide bombers (the first in America) are nothing more than a device to move the plot along, background noise to the escalating drug war. Later it’s stated the president is worried the CIA’s actions in Mexico will lead to his impeachment, which makes the script feel like it was written during Obama’s presidency. In fact the whole movie feels weirdly dated, an unintentional relic of a time before ICE and Trump’s concentration camps.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado is not a terrible film, but a severely underwhelming one. With a better director it could have been more entertaining, but the story has severe flaws I don’t think could be fixed without a complete rewrite. The ending sets up another sequel, one which I would turn out to see, because it appears to be turning into pure pulp. Any semblance of realism went out the door with the Mexican cartel-smuggled suicide bomber in the first scene, but if this continues it looks like it’ll turn into a gritty spaghetti Western.