While walking out of my screening of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, I ended up behind a man in a neon orange “Bike Week” T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, who was telling his friend that he really loved this latest “Psych-kaye-ray-o” film (my best approximation of how he mispronounced “Sicario”) and heard that there would be three or four more films and was really looking forward to them. Sir, I don’t know who you are, but to quote Hannibal Buress … I don’t want you in my life at all.
I tried telling my partner about Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and it didn’t go very well, because I kept having to double-back on plot developments and explain silly narrative twists and eventually we just got to the point where he was like, “That sounds dumb, babe.” And it was dumb. IT WAS. And as someone who has defended filmmaker Taylor Sheridan many times before, and considers Hell or High Water a modern masterpiece and Wind River one of last year’s most underrated films and Sicario a gripping, beautifully shot drama about the failures of both U.S. foreign and domestic policy, the utter nothingness of Day of the Soldado, which Sheridan wrote, is personally infuriating.
In his filmography before Day of the Soldado, Sheridan has done one thing very well: discussed with nuance and a sort of unflinching American attitude how individuals are consistently manipulated by corporations and governments so cynical and so capitalist that their interest in humanity only goes so far as it furthers their own self-serving interests. It’s the greedy banks vs. the down-on-their-luck brothers in Hell or High Water; clandestine federal forces vs. the not-wolves government employees in the first Sicario; and massive oil companies and their mercenary-like security contractors vs. disenfranchised Native Americans in Wind River.
Sheridan identifies a David and a Goliath and expands his stories from there, and in Sicario, that meant making it very clear that the methods the U.S. government is using against the Mexican cartels aren’t working, but also that those methods are inherently racist, inherently classist, inherently dependent on violence instead of diplomacy. There was a self-awareness to the film that Day of the Soldado utterly lacks. The first Sicario was making the same sort of point as a text like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and the Best Picture-winning Coen brothers’ adaptation of it: that our understanding of the American landscape, our idea of the West, has changed, has gotten more brutal and more deadly and more meaningless, but still, we’re foolish if we think there wasn’t a history of violence to begin with. Playing “cowboys and Indians” used to be an acceptable children’s game, but cowboys didn’t politely ask Indians for land; they killed and raped and destroyed to get it. It’s our modern idea of civility that romanticizes the bloodshed of our history. Sicario, which also benefited from the strong cinematic eyes of Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins, understood that; Day of the Soldado doesn’t even come close.
[Some spoilers about Sicario: Day of the Soldado below, because there were some things that were very dumb and I have to share my anger with you]
Day of the Soldado shucks off the characters played by Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya in the preceding film and focuses primarily on government operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, working those Cable from Deadpool 2 Hot Dad muscles) and his hitman colleague, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro, who speaks a lot of Spanish and sign language in this movie, which is actually fine), who team up again after a terrorist attack on American soil. Graver is tasked with figuring out how the Muslims (because of course they are) made their way into the U.S., and when he learns that they traveled on a ship owned by a Mexican cartel leader, he calls on Alejandro to get back in the game.
The plan they come up with is this: Kidnap the cartel leader’s daughter and make it look like a rival cartel did it to encourage a massive, destabilizing war, because for some reason the U.S. military officials Matt meets with think this worked in Iraq? (“Hell of a lot easier if they’re fighting each other,” says one dude with a bunch of medals on his chest, which seems very stupid when you consider that the clusterfuck of Iraq, a country we never should have invaded, helped create ISIS.) But while the kidnapping effort of teenager Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner) is successful, when things start going wrong in the mission, they go massively wrong. Matt’s glib recruitment effort of Alejandro (“Help us start a war with everyone … no rules this time”) ends up being too real as the cartels, the Mexican police, a Mexican gang, and human traffickers all get involved, creating an international incident that seems destined for disaster.
Day of the Soldado is mired both in narrative clichés and in the sort of “gritty” storytelling I would expect more from a Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg joint, and that isn’t meant to be a compliment. Themes aren’t coherent; character motivations change midway through; Isabel is drastically underwritten (and of course, her first line of dialogue is “I’ll fucking kill you,” to really drive home that she’s a cartel boss’s daughter); the casual racism is particularly poorly written (“You can’t even tell they’re gang-bangers anymore,” says Matt); and there’s this long-winded story a gang member tells a new recruit of feeding his enemies’ mothers to his koi fish named Santa Claus that was so dumb that I’m going to think about it for at least another few hours until I eventually forget Day of the Soldado ever existed.
And so much of the Muslim-related stuff feels like pandering to a conservative audience, like the pirate who tells Matt during a potential torture session, “This is a bluff. You’re American. You have too many rules,” and later when it’s revealed that some of the terrorists were U.S. citizens. So should the U.S. tighten its borders or what? Crack down on its own citizens or what? Track every person of Middle Eastern descent or Islamic faith or what? When a government official played by Catherine Keener tells Matt “You think change is the goal? Really? You’ve been doing this too long to think that,” it’s a superficial statement that is supposed to show to us how uncaring and detached people like her are, but at least that’s nowhere near as emotionally manipulative as showing a pretty white woman and her pretty white daughter begging a Muslim terrorist for mercy, only to have him blow himself up anyway.
I suppose I’m not talking much about del Toro here, and maybe that’s a surprise since this movie was initially discussed as a spinoff specific to his character. And honestly, it should have been. He gets the most insightful dialogue (“It still amazes me, the appetite of this place,” he says at an American shopping mall) and has the strongest screen presence, but the movie goes above and beyond in giving him a totally unbelievable villain (a middle schooler) and hinting at the possibility that his character arc was utterly manufactured by Matt and the U.S. government. Why do that? It’s similar to the issues of Solo: A Star Wars Story, where so many details about a fan-favorite character were explained as to sap the magic and charisma of the figure in the first place. No one wants that shit.
Well, I stand corrected. People like that guy in the “Bike Week” T-shirt want shit like this, movies in which Josh Brolin say crap like “This is Africa. I can do whatever the fuck I want here.” (Dude, the intertitle just said the torture site was in Djibouti! At least be specific in your dialogue!) But three or four more movies like Day of the Soldado, like that guy yearned for? I cannot.