When it was first announced that 2015’s Sicario would be getting a sequel without Emily Blunt, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Granted, she was not only the film’s main character, but also the audience’s surrogate in the film. As Kate Macer, she was a morally grounded FBI Agent thrust into a situation that was well over her head, bearing witness to the morally dubious actions carried out by factions of our own shadow government.
Granted, the performances of co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro could, theoretically anyway, be enough to carry a sequel. What is surprising, however, is that three years later we’d get a Sicario sequel that was devoid of any main character whatsoever.
Therein lies the fundamental problem with Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan brings back all the covert actions carried out by government operatives who operate without regard to the rules that would normally apply to law enforcement, but this time without the benefit of a moral lens.
The spark that lights the story’s fire is a terrorist attack carried out in Kansas City, with suicide bombers infiltrating a neighborhood grocery store. The assumption, at least at first, is that these were terrorists who’d infiltrated the country through the U.S./Mexico border. Enter Graver, in all his sandal-wearing, give-no-fucks swagger, who’s told by the Secretary of Defense, James Riley (Matthew Modine), that Mexican drug cartels are now officially classified as terrorist organizations. “Dirty is why you’re here,” Riley tells him, entrusting him with a mission to turn the cartels against one-another.
Naturally, Graver enlists the help of his shadow-lurking minions, most of whom are reprising their roles from the original, including the notoriously merciless, revenge-driven Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro). While Graver dominates the film’s first half, Gillick slowly slides his way into the film’s spotlight. Though neither could really be considered the main character.
While other films have subverted the expectation of what constitutes a protagonist, namely 2007’s No Country For Old Men, which led audiences to believe the film was about Llewelyn Moss (also played by Brolin), only to reveal at a pivotal moment that this was really the story of mislaid sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).
However, the Coen brothers had the source text of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, not to mention their skills as filmmakers, director Stefano Sollima doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off a similar bait-and-switch. Even with Gillick getting some depth to his character, it’s not nearly enough to qualify him as the film’s protagonist.
Speaking of Sollima, he does seem to really try and capture the same lush template that was put on the screen by his predecessor Denis Villeneuve, but never quite manages to get there. Similarly, while Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score in Sicario was an immersive, thoroughly unsettling soundscape, Hildur Guðnadóttir — who also scored Villeneuve’s 2016 masterpiece Arrival — falls just short of recapturing that same sensation. Though she ultimately comes much closer as a composer than Sollima does as a director.
This all leads to the lingering question of why a Sicario sequel, devoid of its main character and director, needed to be made in the first place. Other than it seems like an obvious bid to turn what could have (and, arguably, should have) been a compelling stand-alone film into a Jack Ryan-esque franchise. Of course, there’s already talk of a third Sicario, with Blunt possibly returning. And to little surprise, Day of the Soldado leaves the door white open for this possibility.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t worth watching. It’s certainly a serviceable entry, with moments that are truly engaging, but never quite shakes the paint-by-numbers feel that it’s trying to recreate Sicario, but with too many pieces missing.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado hits theaters on June 29th