2015’s Sicario boasted an all-star quartet—director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and star Emily Blunt. But only one of them (Sheridan) is back for the sequel, and though the other absences are glaring, Sicario: Day of the Soldado does manage to succeed as a gritty, white-knuckle thrill ride. It may be the least noteworthy entry on Sheridan’s outstanding resume, which also includes Hell or High Water and Wind River, but it’s still vintage Sheridan, and that goes a long way.

Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are the only remnants of the primary cast, reprising their roles as CIA operative Matt Graver and shady hitman Alejandro Gillick respectively. The action picks up a few years after Sicario, with Graver being given the green light from the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) to pull out all the stops in the ongoing war against Mexican drug cartels. He recruits his old compadre Gillick, and the two set off to kidnap kingpin Manuel Diaz’ pre-teen daughter and frame a rival for it, in the hopes that it will ignite an inter-cartel war.

As fans of Sheridan’s work well know, nothing ever goes as planned, and grim consequences often result, and it’s no different here. When the operation is botched, Graver and Gillick are separated, leaving CIA honcho Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) no choice but to order Gillick to kill the girl for plausible deniability. He declines, and Foards orders Graver to go after them and the girl himself.

As buddies become enemies, Soldado’s story picks up steam, pitting two of recent cinema’s more memorable anti-heroes against each other, and Sheridan’s cracker-jack, perfectly esoteric script gives them plenty to work with. Brolin and del Toro credit (along with young Isabela Moner, who impresses as the kingpin’s daughter) keep up their end of the bargain, turning in performances that rival their work in the original, if not surpass it.

It’s director Stefano Sollima who lets everyone down, though, putting together a paint-by-numbers crime drama that resembles Sicario in name only. And without Deakins’ world-class work behind the camera, the deficiency is even more apparent.

The words and the actors are there, sure, but Soldado just feels…off. In and of itself it may work fine as a harrowing look at the seedy (and then some) border war and the nastiness of the cartel’s vice-grip on virtually every aspect of society, but we’ve come to expect much more in Sheridan’s brutal world. It’s just a shame his brilliant story and the cast’s great work aren’t given the movie they deserve.


3.5/5 stars