There were warning signs even before the title changed. After the moderate success of Sicario in 2015, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan promised an unnecessary follow-up that in true sequel fashion would be bigger, darker, and meaner than the original. Her character’s arc complete, Emily Blunt was out, and so were director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Josh Brolin’s brutish CIA Agent Matt Graver would take on a larger role, as would Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious attorney turned assassin. The story would follow a war between rival cartels, covertly incited by the US Government.
It would be called Soldado.
Time passed, distribution rights changed hands, and Soldado became Sicario 2: Soldado, before being changed again to Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The goofy title and hyper-macho advertising revealed the studio’s insecurities about the sequel’s ability to draw larger crowds and suggested a betrayal of what had come before. Nuanced storytelling was gone in favor of ultraviolence and right of center politics. An intelligent, artsy thriller succeeded by B-movie schlock.
And yet, Day of the Soldado’s marketing was deceptive. It is never the trashy film that I feared it would be. Instead, it’s something worse – a self-serious, painfully boring slog that doesn’t seem to give any thought to its basic story and filmmaking decisions, let alone thematic aspirations. Though the studio did its best to spin the film into something with more box-office draw, the film’s core faults lie with the one member of the original creative team who stuck around.
Last year, Taylor Sheridan made a competent directorial debut with Wind River, but its most revealing weakness was that the screenwriter no longer had someone to edit his work. Though Italian director Stefano Sollima is in charge this time, Day of the Soldado suffers from a similar problem. Characters crack lame jokes, ask questions they know the answers to, and otherwise speak when silence would do.
The original Sicario was a slight script to begin with, but Villanueve smartly cut it down further. His discretion greatly added to the mystery of Alejandro, the titular Sicario, while also papering over plot contrivances and better creating the illusion of authenticity. Even if it failed to communicate the labyrinthine intricacies of the Drug War, Sicario made up for it with emotional truth. Without directly politicizing the War on Drugs, it showed the darkness and futility at its core in a visceral, primal fashion.
The sequel trades ambiguity for muddled plotting. Its predecessor kept the viewer in the dark along with its protagonist about the larger ramifications of its story, but the precise filmmaking gave clarity to the moment-to-moment storytelling. Here, half the movie’s run time is place setting for a plot that never takes shape. I immediately understood where the story was headed, but I kept expecting a twist around the corner. Instead, it pulls the wool over its own eyes and spends two hours running around blindly, bumping into things.
In an attempt to one-up the horrifying opening scene of the original, Day of the Soldado begins with a suicide bombing in a Kansas City grocery store. Though Islamic extremists are behind the attack, one of the cartels is responsible for smuggling the terrorists into America. Why? We get a one-off line about how cocaine prices skyrocketed after border security tightened in the aftermath of 9/11, and that’s about it. Human trafficking is now the cartel’s biggest source of revenue and the implication is that families desperate to cross the border will pay even more now that the US is on high alert.
Where the cartels were a largely unseen evil in the first movie, they are barely present at all in the sequel. Sicario never justified the fascistic response to cartel violence, but it still made you desire justice of some kind. Here, the cartels are a second-hand evil, while the true perpetrators are forgotten about. Aside from a mundane look at their border crossing operations, the Mexican crime syndicates are kept entirely off screen and the promised “war” never arrives. Sicario was about the different evils embodied by criminals and militarized police. Day of the Soldado spends so little time on the former and leaves us only with the latter, a problem further complicated by its uncertainty about just how evil its protagonists really are.
Graver and Alejandro stage the kidnapping of a cartel leader’s daughter, but the plan’s intended effect never plays out. Instead, we watch it fall apart through corruption on the Mexican army’s part and the US Government’s cold feet. Eventually, Alejandro finds himself stranded on the wrong end of the border with the girl to protect after Graver is given orders to kill both of them. Day of the Soldado flirts with becoming another story about a ruthless killer redeemed by his decision to protect an innocent child, but by this point, there is too little time left to properly commit to that. After the complete lack of sentiment in the first film, this conventional plot would have been insulting, but at least it would have been something. Despite being just as over-written as Wind River, it still wants to be subtle, avoiding obvious character arcs and wanting us instead to believe in an unspoken goodness in these men, however briefly it might be stirred within them. It asks far too much of its audience and gives nothing in return.
As the many disparate plot threads are pulled together, some excitement is wrung from the film’s final third. A shocking twist briefly returns the series to the nihilism of the first film, but that too is undone in favor of… well, nothing really, except further place-setting for another entry in the series. Day of the Soldado is meaningless, but that meaninglessness is not the point. Though it inevitably slips into some racist characterizations and questionable political subtext, the film is too vague to be offensive. It’s too vague to be anything except a waste of two hours.
It’s tempting to look back at his previous work with a revisionist eye, but even if it is in spite of him, Taylor Sheridan’s early work still holds up. The original Sicario and Hell or High Water still make for quite the one-two punch, but one doesn’t have to look closely to find the diminishing returns, or the recurring flaws. As his critics have pointed out, Sheridan’s scripts have always been guilty of male posturing and dick swinging, but Day of the Soldado doesn’t swing so much as it droops.