Taylor Sheridan has not yet written a bad film. Until now that is. His first three: Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River all share the neo-Western genre but differ in setting, tone and character. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the first sequel he’s scripted and it’s uneven, occasionally messy and missing the heart of what made Sicario so great. That said, it does maintain the grim tone and blistering tension that rocketed the first to critical and commercial acclaim.
Picking up several years after the events of the first film, Emily Blunt’s moralising FBI agent Kate Macer is out of the picture. Yet, CIA operatives Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) are in high demand. Mexican cartels have been smuggling jihadists across the Mexican border. In response, Secretary of Defence James Riley (Mathew Modine) authorises Graver to “get dirty” to stop them. Parallel to this is the story of Mexican-Americans Gallo and Miguel who shepherd illegal immigrants across the border.
The story feels convoluted and at odds with Taylor Sheridan’s desire to make his plots “absurdly simple” so he can focus on character. Admittedly the American wars on drugs and terror are complex and highly sensitive issues especially now. At a time when films should focus on the problematic American responses to these threats Soldado doesn’t. Neither does it focus on its characters, at least not enough for them to develop in anyway.
One problem is the lack of Kate Macer. Her presence allowed us to view Alejandro through a more sympathetic lense just as we could see Matt Graver as suspicious. Instead Graver’s motives are out in the open and Alejandro is just a murderer for much of the film.
Soldado leaves itself open to having that lense again once Graver and Alejandro kidnap Isabela (Isabela Moner), the teenage daughter of the Reyes Cartel’s leader. Hoping to start a war between the cartels using Isabela’s kidnap as a false flag operation, Alejandro is left stranded with Isabela. Though he becomes a sympathetic figure once more in Isabela’s eyes it’s too little, too late.
Soldado’s tension burns like a short fuse. It’s a credit to Gomorrah director Stefano Sollima that he can keep the ever-ratcheting tension of the original at almost the same level as Denis Villeneuve did with Sicario. Much of these armrest clawing scenes come off as similar to the first film however. There’s a tense alleyway shootout, a standoff on a dirt road not far off from the infamous border scene in Sicario and a night vision lit raid.
These may not be as creative as the trailer park blowout in Wind River or the sniper battle in Hell or High Water. Yet, Sheridan and Sollima know how to keep your eyes glued to the screen and your ass to the seat. They are aided by by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score. Replacing a key part of the original’s behind-the-scenes crew – Jóhann Jóhannsson who died this year – her soundtrack filled with droning synths, plaintive strings and rumbling bass compositions adds grit and texture to the film.
Soldado ultimately forgets that the series’ most important moments were those that show people doing the wrong thing because they have no other choice or because they think it’ll save America as an outside observer watches on. It’s this Soldado is missing. Instead we only see it from the eyes of the insiders. What’s the point in that when we know they’re already doing these things for revenge or some misguided, jingoistic sense of patriotism.
Those expecting Sheridan’s living, breathing characters should look elsewhere but if it’s the nail-breaking tension you are after Day of the Soldado has it in spades.