The first Sicario never seemed like a well-oiled story engine to drive a sequel forward, with its oblique behind-the-curtains look at the depths of cartel violence, and the horrifying lengths the United States government will go to combat it. It was certainly an effective horror show, but where do you go once you’ve shown all your cards and committed the most heinous acts possible? What other angles can be plumbed from a premise based entirely around the amorality of cartel warfare and the ripple effects of its violence? Well, writer Taylor Sheridan — returning from the first film — seems to think the answer to those questions is simply more.
The concept of “more” in cinema, however, unless you’re making an action movie–which is what this film’s marketing wanted you to think it was–so often equates to less. Nowhere is that more clear than this film’s opening sequences which takes an incredibly harrowing terrorist attack scene, and tarnishes it by pushing it well past the brink of credulity by resorting to the cheap ploy of a mother and her child becoming the narrowed focal point of the scene, squandering the power of an unflinchingly dispassionate act of violence and narrowing its focus from the real to trite Hollywood cliche.
The troubled focus of the opening is only a portent of things to come, and at every opportunity Sheridan chooses the path of least resistance and pushes endlessly forward by adding more. How do you shock the audience when the prior film culminated with the cold-blooded assassination of a whole family around a dinner table? By the time airstrikes are being dropped on one characters family members early on I was already numb to the film’s shock tactics. Cynicism and ultra-violence can be incredibly powerful ingredients, but like salt, if you put too much in you’ll foul up the whole mixture, and let me tell you this movie is certainly a foul mixture.
Unfortunately, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is not just an exploitative and unnecessary sequel with amped up action sequences, as I could have still had a queasy good time with it had director Stefano Sollima spent the film making juiced up versions of Denis Villeneuve’s delicious set-pieces from the first film; instead it is a movie built exclusively on the few aspects I didn’t enjoy from the first film. Did you not enjoy the hamfisted and obvious Mexican cop subplot from the first movie? Well, Sheridan has somehow included another intersecting story-line that’s even more embarrassing and takes up twice as much screen time. Was Emily Blunt’s character a bit too thin to hang a story on? Great news, this time there aren’t any characters to speak of, because despite spending the whole movie with Del Toro’s character Alejandro, we end up not knowing anything more about him than we did in the original. Where the first film was a taut razor wire of controlled tension release and nightmare reveals, here basic setups aren’t paid off, themes don’t cohere, character motivations are breezy at best, and a bizarre fake-out in the third act seems only to muddle a direction that was barely there to begin with.
The moments where Sollima gets to emulate the nail-biting set-pieces of the first film are easily its most successful, even if they feel a bit like retreads but with higher body counts (Del Toro does get some pretty slick kills in this, the action aficionado in me has to admit). The trouble only really rears its head when Sheridan tries to pretend that this film is about anything at all. But there’s no statement being made here other than that people are only capable of being awful, as even good intentions leave nothing but corpses and scars.
Had the film ended two minutes before it did I would have left the theater as bleary and shell-shocked as Isabela Moner, the young actress who plays Alejandro’s charge, is through much of the film. Shell-shocked and disappointed, but not contemptuous. Unfortunately for all of us, the film’s actual coda is not only the worst thing Sheridan has ever written, but perhaps the worst ending to a movie I’ve seen in recent memory. Everything about the scene is so unfortunately comical that it undoes any residual tension that might have been lingering.
When I reviewed Wind River, I expressed hope that Sheridan would branch out of his wheelhouse a little more and tell a story that needed telling. Sadly, not only did this one not need telling, it probably shouldn’t have been told at all.