Spinning a tale about US government-backed operatives plotting to kidnap a Mexican teenager, Sicario: Day of the Soldado was always going to strike a chord. That said, the film's storyline hits home particularly hard at the moment — a time when children are being taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border, and a tweet-happy president keeps raging about cartels and building a wall. Reality casts a long shadow over this sequel to 2015's surprise standout Sicario. Indeed, there's no way to wade into such murky, politically loaded territory without stirring up more than a few real-world parallels. In the movie as in life, the war on drugs has been overtaken by the war on immigration, and there's absolutely nothing pleasant about it.
After attempting to stop the influx of illicit substances into the US in Sicario, military contractor Matt (Josh Brolin) and hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) reunite to tackle the cartels' latest cash cow. With the smuggling of people rather than drugs now the US administration's main concern, the duo is given free reign to do whatever they must; there are no rules this time, as the American tells his Colombian counterpart. Opening fire in traffic, prolonged gunfights with Mexican cops, abductions in broad daylight —if it helps to secretly start a battle between rival mobsters, then it's on the agenda. Their main task: kidnap 16-year-old Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a powerful cartel boss with ties to Alejandro's own sad story, and make it appear as though another gang is responsible.
It's with an expectedly unsettling air that Sicario: Day of the Soldado becomes a tense exercise in distress, dancing through dark terrain, and ramping up the anxiety and carnage at every turn. From a soundtrack that drones with each blasting note, to bright yet gritty visuals that lay bare the stark situation on the ground, to a seemingly relentless onslaught of action set-pieces, nothing about the film shies away from its uneasy content and mood. That's an achievement that the picture shares with its predecessor, although this follow-up doesn't quite belong in the same company. With the original film's director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (whopassed away earlier this year) all absent, it's left to their replacements Stefano Sollima (TV's Gomorrah), Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) and Hildur Guðnadóttir (a cellist on the first flick) to offer up as close a copy as they can, instead of trying anything different or distinctive.
'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' might be the motto behind-the-scenes, but it proves a mixed bag on-screen. As the film watches its characters coldly and brazenly apply a familiar approach to a new scenario and expect the same successful result, it doesn't escape attention that the movie does the exact same thing. Well, with one major difference, and a crucial one. Where Sicario centred on a female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) thrust into a murky realm she wasn't prepared for or willingly to go blindly along with, this second effort dispenses with the character altogether. In her absence, so too does the film do away with the idea that someone might stand up for doing what's right, rather than what the government and its ruthless agents deem necessary.
That's not to say that Brolin and Del Toro don't sweat moral complexity from their furrowed brows, or that their protagonists don't get caught in situations that test even their tenuous ethical limits. They do both, although that's more thanks to the actors than returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (WindRiver). What's missing here is an outside perspective — a view on this dog-eat-dog world that doesn't just accept the bleak circumstances, the by-any-means mindset, or the cruelty that goes with it. Still, Del Toro comes closest to demonstrating the humanity that often gets caught in the crossfire, even when he's holding a weapon and training it at someone else. The path his assassin takes, and the world-weary performance Del Toro turns in, makes the otherwise grim but standard Sicario: Day of the Soldado worth watching. But the less said about the movie's sequel-baiting last few minutes and the teen gang protege subplot that accompanies it, the better.