PLOT Two operatives working for the U.S. government kidnap a Mexican drug lord’s daughter.
CAST Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
RATED R (strong and very bloody violence)
BOTTOM LINE A watchable and ostensibly topical crime drama, but not nearly as compelling as 2015’s “Sicario.”
“Sicario,” Denis Villeneuve’s drama about the war on drugs and the moral toll on its combatants, became a surprise hit in 2015. Praised for its moody direction, slow-burning story and rare female heroine (Emily Blunt), “Sicario” earned three Oscar nominations and $84 million worldwide.
So what does the sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” do? It gets rid of almost everything that worked so well in the original.
Blunt’s vulnerable FBI agent is gone, leaving “Soldado” (Spanish for “soldier”) almost entirely to two macho men, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, reprising their roles as CIA dirty-dealer Matt Graver and enigmatic assassin Alejandro, respectively. In this story, written once again by Taylor Sheridan, the two operatives are assigned to kick the hornet’s nest of the Mexican cartels. Their unlikely and rather unsavory idea is to kidnap a kingpin’s teenage daughter, Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), and frame a rival. Complications, of course, arise. Trapped in Mexico, Alejandro and Isabela see only one way out: To blend in with the poor and desperate masses trying to cross the U.S. border.
Using a topical backdrop to juice up a story is something Sheridan does uncannily well. His 2016 film “Hell or High Water,” about two bank-robbing brothers, got a jolt of urgency from its nods to the 2008 housing collapse and “forgotten” America. Sheridan tries to do it again here, transplanting what is basically a Berlin Wall-era plot to the modern Mexican border. Sheridan’s near-clairvoyant focus on immigration — a long-simmering issue that has suddenly become volcanic — is impressive. Nevertheless, the film’s approach is at best glancing, and at worst inflammatory.
It isn’t that the ragged, woeful immigrants are treated as mere set decorations instead of as characters. (The film isn’t really about them, but it could have at least put words in their mouths.) What’s objectionable is that the film conflates Mexican immigrants and Islamic terrorists. We’re told the cartels are smuggling in Middle Eastern suicide bombers in the hopes of – get this – encouraging rattled Americans to buy more dope. (“Remember what happened to the price of cocaine after 9/11?” Graver says, gravely.) Terrorism and immigration are difficult problems that wind up pushing a lot of ethnic and religious sore spots; mixing them together willy-nilly seems like the wrong idea.
That said, “Soldado” is a watchable action-drama. Director Stefano Sollima stages his action scenes with rigor and uses the stark New Mexico landscape to good effect; Del Toro, meanwhile, gives Alejandro a soul that we saw only fleetingly in the first film. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” ends with an open link to a third movie, but returns already seem to be diminishing.
If drugs are the scourge of America, how come we like movies about them? “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the latest in a long line of Hollywood films to delve into the sordid business of illegal substances. Here are four more:
SUPERFLY (1972) This gritty, almost documentary-style film about a small-time dealer named Priest (Ron O’Neal) features a great still-photo montage showing whites, blacks, gays, straights and all manner of Americans using his product. Curtis Mayfield’s pulsating soul song “Pusherman” drives home the point.
SCARFACE (1983) Brian DePalma’s crime-drama-cum-comedy, starring Al Pacino as Cuban-American kingpin Tony Montana, has been oft-quoted (“Say hello to my lil’ frien’!”) but hopefully not oft-imitated: In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Montana snorts a veritable sandcastle of cocaine.
TRAFFIC (2000) Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant adaptation of a British television series (“Traffik”) examines the drug trade from just about every angle and viewpoint. The stellar cast includes “Sicario” star Benicio Del Toro (playing a Mexican cop) and James Brolin, whose son, Josh, is also in “Sicario.”
BLOW (2001) Johnny Depp plays George Jung, the real-life dealer thought to be responsible for the lion’s share of cocaine consumed by Americans during the 1970s and ‘80s. Rockville Centre’s Ted Demme, nephew of Baldwin’s Jonathan Demme, directed the film, the last to be released before his death in 2002.