In 2015 relative unkowns, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and director Denis Villeneuve, became names to pay attention to with their release of Sicario. It was a horrifyingly honest look into the war on drugs at the Mexican/American border. It was beautifully written, directed and acted, which led to it quickly becoming a critical darling. Cinefiles and critics alike fell in love with this film. While it didn’t perform great at the box office (46 million domestically and 84 million worldwide) it did gather a strong following and for good reason. Sicario is an incredible film. It is rite with tension, thanks to a beautiful harmony of cinematography, score, directing, writing and acting. You are constantly on the edge of your seat and there is never a time when you feel like you can relax. It’s also one of the most beautiful films you will ever see, with a countless number of shots that stick in your brain long after the movie is over. The score by Johan Johansson, is incredible and the perfect backdrop for the visuals on the screen. There are also amazing performances from Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt, that pull everything together. Even with all of this, it came as a bit of a surprise when a sequel was announced. This film didn’t have any of the traditional successes that usually led to sequels. It’s an original story so it isn’t servicing a larger IP that calls for more films. A sequel could also hurt the charm of the first film. In a sequel dominated landscape an original story is a breath of fresh air. Nonetheless, on June 29th Sony released Sicario: Day of the Soldado. For the sequel Taylor Sheridan returned to write the screenplay and Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprised their roles as Matt Graver and Alejandro. However Emily Blunt did not return and director Stefano Sollima stepped in for Denis Villeneuve. These two missing elements proved to be significant because the sequel had some of the same great elements of the first, but it fell far short of the incredibly high bar set by it’s predecessor.
The incredible tension that was true to Sicario was still true here. Sheridan wrote another good and interesting screenplay which had some very tense moments. Kidnapping the cartel leader’s daughter and then trying to get her back across the border to the United States, were incredibly tense moments. The way the camera sat in the car, during the latter scene, and the sound design of the bullets hitting the windshield put you in the car with them. Each second felt like it stretched on forever and you are made uncomfortable because of how real this situation feels. Moments like this are the highlights of the film. The call back to the first film recreated that tension in a real and memorable way. This film also gave a startling look into what goes on at the border. Part of the tension is the feeling that this is more real than we care to realize or acknowledge. Similar to the first, Sheridan doesn’t pull any punches in this regard. We see the questionable (to put it nicely) things the American government is willing to do for it’s own interest. This has become a rather popular thing to depict across entertainment but Day of the Soldado brings a grittiness to it that makes it feel more real (the same is true for its predecessor).
Sollima and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski did a great job of further providing tension through the camera. The way the camera moved and where it was placed was spectacular at points. The suicide bombing scene in a grocery store earlier in the film that is a perfect example of this. The camera starts in the car with the bombers. It follows them towards the store but stops outside of it. We focus on one bomber as he detonates but the camera remains outside. It then moves horizontally to capture the chaos inside and settle on another bomber as he detonates. This was a breathtaking scene technically and the excellent camera work did so much for the story. It set a tone and provided stakes, after that scene we (as an audience) know just how serious this is. This also lends to the grittiness of the film because the camera doesn’t turn away from the bombings, you see it and feel it. When a mother is trying to protect her daughter and walks into the last bomber, the scene comes to a hault. You’re wondering if she’ll get out and if we’ll see what’s going to happen. When the explosion takes place you just have to sit with that for a bit. It’s heartbreaking, angering and impossible to forget. Sollima went there and as tough as it was to watch, the film was better for it. The problem is cinematically this was the best the film ever got and themactically the film isn’t as brave.
There were elements of really good film making all throughout Day of the Soldado but it’s hard not to compare it to its predecessor. Technically it wasn’t as good as Sicario. Admittedly this is a high bar to reach but that was the task and it fell short. As great as the moments were this just felt like a shell of the first film. Unfortunately Day of the Soldado sorely missed Villeneuve, Roger Deakins (Cinematographer) and Johan Johansson. Deakins did not waste a shot in the first film. Everything was purposeful and seemed as if a lot of thought was put into it, and that came across in the experience. Soldado had some of that but couldn’t quite reach it, to the films detriment. Also Johansson’s score in the first film was perfectly suited for the experience. It built this amazing tension all on its own. You could feel that score run through you. Soldado attempted that but in end the score is an after thought. None of these elements are bad, they just don’t live up to the standard of the first film. Another thing Soldado is missing, is Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer. As great as Emily Blunt was, it’s not that exact character that is missed, it’s more of the purpose that character served that’s missed. Macer was an audience surrogate. We followed her and gathered information as she did. That served Sheridan’s storytelling perfectly because he could leave the audience in the dark and it built tension rather than harm the story. Soldado doesn’t have that and in turn the story was confusing without anyone for the audience to connect with. Macer brought a level of humanity and optimism to the world, without that character everything feels bleak. That may be what Sheridan and Sollima were going for but it was a less effective way to tell this story.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is far from bad. If Sicario doesn’t exist this film probably comes across better but it’s impossible to not compare the films. This harms this film as does the problematic thematic elements of Soldado. This film doesn’t commentate or provide a viewpoint on the situation at the border or what is happening with the Mexican cartels. It is just showing a story about it. There is some cinematic value in that but without any real commentary is it using the completely awful for the sake of entertainment? And is that something that should be happening? It’s not bad enough to take you out of the film but these are questions worth asking. All in all Day of the Soldado is a good but not great film. It’ll probably occupy a smaller audience than the first because it’s not as good as the first. It’s also hard to enjoy such a grim story in the world we are currently living in.
3 out of 5 stars
Director: Stefano Somllima Writer: Taylore Sheridan Cast: Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan & Catherine Keener Release Date: June 29th Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours and 2 minutes Image Credit: Variety