Sicario: Day of the Soldado (DOTS) is not a “feel good” movie. It revolves around a pointless war being fought against hopeless odds. The line between good and evil gets blurry and at times, outright obliterated. It depicts a never ending battle where territory is won and lost constantly and the borders shift to and fro. An odious oscillation that is frustrating in its futility. In many ways, trying to craft an “entertaining” story out of something so glum borders on masochism.
Right from the first frame, the movie makes no bones about the harshness of the world it seeks to depict. There is a weird bait and switch happening here, with the director setting the board to look like the game is going to involve big players making huge strategic moves. Unlike Sicario, the movie to which DOTS is a sequel, the viewer is tricked into believing the antagonists in this sordid tale are going to be Islamic terrorists. I say tricked because the focus is actually still on the drug war. Or to be accurate, the Mexican cartels, who have now switched to smuggling something far more lucrative: People. But, the sweeping strategic moves never happen. The focus is still on dirty tactics with personal stakes. The board is just the backdrop to the moves of the pawns. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it what the opening sequence would lead one to believe. Heck, even the marketing line “No rules this time” is misleading.
Successfully juggling multiple points of view (POV) is one of the hardest techniques to execute in film making. It is a high risk- high reward gamble. When it works, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Pulp Fiction, Traffic, Snatch and even the original Sicario pull it off excellently. And though DOTS does not entirely “fail” here, it does not come together in a cohesive whole the way its precursor did. The end result is a movie that has all the right ingredients and yet comes across as being a tad less than the sum of its parts (just a tad mind). The first half of the film is especially heavy. But it lies pregnant with a promise that it doesn’t quite deliver. Further complicating matters is the fact that anyone coming to the sequel without having watched the original is likely to miss a lot of context.
Take for instance a scene where Josh Brolin’s character is being chewed out by his boss (for lack of a better word). The words being used to reprimand him are these: “You think change is the goal? Really? You’ve been doing this too long to believe that.” It’s a powerful line in a poignant scene. And unless the viewer has seen the first film, it will only have a fraction of the impact it should. Even a certain act of betrayal (I’m being deliberately vague here to keep from spoiling things) which hit me like ton of bricks, will seem like a relatively minor twist to fresh eyes.
It all comes back to the idea of “futility” that so permeated the first film and continues here. The soldiers in the trenches, the ones in the thick of the whole bloody mess, curse the political desk jockeys that give them their orders. For their part, the politicians are caught in an impossible situation and will always choose expediency over loyalty. Nobody wins because victory isn’t even possible. Like I said, this is not something you watch to feel good. There is no denying the emotional impact though.
The camera work, much like the plot itself, is gritty, with muted colors and harsh lighting. The world seems deliberately devoid of color, dominated as it is by browns, greys and shadows (both figurative and literal). The action sequences are shot brilliantly. There is one particular scene, shot in darkness via night vision, that is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen in film. The music adds to this, giving scenes a certain heft and prolonging tension at just the right moments. Overall, the cinematography is tight. Action fans will find little to complain about here.
The same goes for the acting. Brolin is convincing in his simmering anger, cold and professional as his character demands. Benicio del Toro is excellent but then, this is the kind of role that he’s been perfecting for a while now. The real stars of the show though, are Isabella Moner and Bruno Bichir. The former looks like she is ready to move past the disaster that was the last Transformers movie by playing the role of a cartel bosses daughter. As for Bichir, he did more with no real dialog and a mere three minutes of screen time than most A-listers manage in a dozen films. I’m not embellishing when I say that. His performance left me floored. More of this gentleman please Hollywood. The fact that he had so little to do in the movie is one my biggest complaints. Forget drug smuggling, this is the real crime here.
Thematically, DOTS seems to be going for a Conrad’esque “Heart of darkness” vibe complemented with a heavy dose of Nietzsche. The whole “becoming a monster while fighting one” lesson is impossible to miss. The sense of moral confusion that stems from not knowing exactly where one stands is something all characters share. However, it is best presented by the character of Miguel (played by Elijah Rodriguez), a Texan teenager of Mexican heritage that lives close to the US-Mexico border. Miguel’s POV is one of many that DOTS juggles. With a cousin that works for a the Cartels, he is coaxed into a life of crime. His loyalties are torn as he stands between two worlds. It is no coincidence that part of the reason he is hired is because of his ability to straddle this tenuous line, going back and forth across a river (another shifting border), herding desperate immigrants like cattle. Half of him clearly just wants to be an average Texan high-schooler. The other half craves for the money and power offered by a ruthless Mexican cartel. This thematic allusion is one the director (Denis Villeneuve) pulls off rather convincingly. But damn this is one bleak story.
I should stress, for the sake of clarity if nothing else, that this is by no means a bad movie. If anything, I quite enjoyed it and feel confident that anyone who liked the precursor will give this one a (tentative) thumbs up. But it certainly left me wanting more. Here’s hoping that the rumors of a trilogy are true.
FINAL SCORE 7.7/10