Let me tell you a little bit about El Paso. It has roughly the same population as DC. It has a minor league baseball team, The Chihuahuas, and seemingly everyone loves their mascot Chico. It is one of the safest cities in the United States. El Paso also shares a border with Juarez, Mexico. People from Juarez cross the border for the big box stores, and people from El Paso cross the border for medical care. El Paso is a nice, normal place. You should probably visit, and have some authentic Mexican food while you’re there.
I bring this up because Taylor Sheridan, screenwriter of the Sicario films, presents the southern border is a lawless hellscape where terrorism and warfare run rampant. A lot has happened since Sicario first hit theaters. The guy who said “[Mexican immigrants] are rapists” is now our President. At our southern border, the government separated thousands of immigrant children from their parents, with no clear plan to reunite them. In other words, Sicario: Day of the Soldado could not have come at a worse time. A large cohort of the movie-going public is not in the mood for a nasty thriller about cartel warfare. But if Day of the Soldado does poorly at the box office – and it probably will – it won’t be just because of the political climate this summer. It will be because the movie is terrible.
Directed with clear-eyed menace by Denis Villeneuve, the original Sicario is the rare thriller that feels plausible. When the film works, it is because of Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and a strong lead performance from Emily Blunt. Day of the Soldado jettisons all that, keeping instead the amoral American spy Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his hitman asset Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The two men reunite because of a terror attack: after cartels smuggle suicide bombers across the border, they detonate their vests in a Kansas City grocery scene. The scene is so nakedly manipulative and xenophobic – a visualized Trumpian fever dream utterly divorced from reality – that Day of the Soldado unintentionally loses any hope of being serious.
With encouragement from the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine), Matt decides a cartel war is the best retaliation. He accomplishes this by kidnapping Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel leader, and making it look like the dirty work of a rival cartel. This is a profoundly dumb plan, with way too many risks, so of course it nearly starts an international incident. In the confusion, Matt’s team separates from Alejandro, who is busy protecting Isabel. Miles apart, they reach an impasse: Matt gets orders to kill Isabel, while Alejandro goes “off the grid” to keep her safe.
Taylor Sheridan’s script for Sicario worked because of its limited point of view. We saw nearly every scene through Kate, the Emily Blunt character, so the central tension was whether she could trust Matt and Alejandro. Day of the Soldado is relatively omnipotent: we know these are characters are bad, bad people. We know what they are capable of. Sheridan substitutes Kate for Isabel, who is meant to engage our sympathies, except the whole bait-and-switch is exploitative. At least Kate had some self-determination: she was a sharp thinker who could defend herself. Isabel is neither of those things, and the suspense deflates accordingly. You may also recall that Sicario ends with Alejandro murdering a cartel’s leader entire family in cold blood. The only reason Isabel does not suffer the same fate is because, well, Sheridan needs her for baseline plot coherence.
Day of the Soldado was directed by the Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, and he has an impressive pedigree under his belt (he directed the lion’s share of the Netflix series Gomorrah). He captures the dour, menacing mood of Sicario, without any of the style or composition. The action sequences do not have the same sense of escalation or spatial logic, so the sudden bursts of violence are nowhere as cathartic. There are digressive subplots, including an American teenager who gets recruited as a coyote, and they are shot with perfunctory interest for the material. The composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who previously worked with Jóhannsson, repeats Sicario’s refrain of thunderous, semi-electronic booms. They are used too often here, to the point where each subsequent boom loses its power. Like Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception, this musical idea is now ripe for parody.
After Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan was an intriguing new talent, the sort of screenwriter who made mature films for mature audiences. Between Day of the Soldado and last year’s abysmal Wind River, he seemingly squandered that potential. His screenplays are not especially smart or engaging: they are pulpy and grim, drumming up genre thrills through halfhearted verisimilitude. Sheridan has insisted his films are not political, and indeed his best screenplays exist in a exaggerated vision of the United States. The only trouble is that America nowadays looks closer to his vision, so that the insistence of being apolitical is naïve. And if that were not enough, Day of the Soldado sets up a sequel in an utterly ham-fisted, implausible way. Del Toro is a good sport for agreeing to this film, especially since no actor alive could make his final lines sound convincing.
When Sicario with a Vengeance or whatever hits theaters in 2021, Sheridan is going to have Alejandro triumphantly standing atop a pile of brown bodies, having just saved the United States from declaring war on Mexico. Since this franchise is fast becoming the MAGA equivalent of Machete, it should at least abandon its pretense of pseudo-serious macho bullshit.