There’s hard-boiled and then there’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” a very tense, very violent and very thrilling film where nobody lives happily ever after, if they survive at all.
This nightmarish badlands noir will surely be one of this year’s most memorable films. Designed to leave you dazzled and disturbed, its skillful brutality plays strikingly real. But “Soldado” aims deeper than blood-and-guts thrills, presenting a scathing journey into the heart of darkness: human nature’s urge to self-destruction. Like a “Moby Dick” narrative, “Soldado” examines what happens after the white whale is caught and the cost of Ahab’s vengeful hunt is revealed.
It’s the latest entry in Taylor Sheridan’s dark catalog of revisionist westerns. The screenwriter and sometimes director has created an outstanding body of work, including 2015’s nihilistic original “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” (which earned him a best screenplay Oscar nomination), “Wind River” (winning him a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival) and the new Paramount Network drama “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner.
Here he gives us a challenge that plays like a tough-as-nails crime thriller, then morphs into a war movie, ultimately evolving into a bloody revenge film. It’s further evidence that he is among the best writers in Hollywood.
The focus of the “Sicario” films is a clandestine, outside-the-law war between U.S. government agents and Mexican drug cartels. Each side operates with military-level assaults that feel driven first by strategy, then by unpredictable instinct. Enriching the classic themes of lawless borderland westerns, it casts us adrift in a world of corruption and ferocity on both sides of the battle.
The original film, starring Emily Blunt as a conflicted FBI agent caught in the crossfire, was a magnetic, mesmerizing crime gothic. The new installment is no less. Watching it is like spending two hours in a steadily tightening noose.
Blunt doesn’t reprise her role here, but this morally ambiguous universe is packed with valuable players from the first chapter of the series and top-flight new arrivals. Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reboot their roles as hardened CIA operative Matt Graver and his quietly chilling hit man, Alejandro. Each offers a master class in taciturn, minimalist acting and humanizing complicated, unpredictable and deeply flawed characters. Like its predecessor, “Soldado” is a movie with excellent casting and without easily identifiable heroes.
The film’s female focus is Isabela, the early-teen daughter of a Mexican drug trade king. The girl is fiery and tough as barbed wire yet still vulnerable when she’s kidnapped in a plot against her father. She is masterfully played by Isabela Moner, who lets us sense what she’s feeling and scared of and struggling with at every turn. A small but significant sidebar story concerns a poor Mexican-American boy living in Texas who might be on a life path akin to Isabela’s.
The gripping opening sets the dramatic stakes quickly. Graver, a federal agent whom most films would want us to identify with and root for, remains an amoral, often self-evidently bad man. He enters the film striding into an Abu Ghraib-style prison and interrogating a Somali pirate with such coldblooded ferocity that waterboarding would be an act of mercy.
As in the first film, there is a curtain-raising U.S. explosion that leaves shocking casualties. In short order, Graver is transferred to Washington, D.C., where the secretary of defense (Matthew Modine) assigns him to an even tougher task. “The president is adding drug cartels to the list of terrorist organizations,” to be terminated by whatever extralegal means necessary, the Cabinet official barks. “Dirty is exactly why you’re here.”
Graver plans to secretly take Isabela hostage, implicate her father’s rivals, trigger a south-of-the-border bloodbath and shield the U.S. with deniability. In Graver’s empathy-free calculus, it adds up to lose, lose, win. He uses his sinister charm to recruit the assassin Alejandro, whose family was murdered by Isabela’s father, with exactly the revenge he wants: “You’re going to help us start a war.”
It’s expected that there will be collateral casualties — Graver has a blank disregard for the lives of minor players — but before you can say piñata, bodies explode into fireworks of blood and flesh, and the feds scramble to avoid a kamikaze run. Their exit strategy becomes all the harder when Alejandro is ordered to commit a level of murder even this experienced executioner doesn’t feel he has signed up for. The story moves beyond following orders to matters of codes of honor, betrayal, loyalty and self-respect.
The power of director Stefano Sollima’s tough, testosterone-fueled, high-impact fable comes not from its harrowing depiction of violence, as visceral and authentic as anything ever shot. Its authority is in the way it portrays bloodshed’s dreadful effects not only on the body but on the psyche. Here a capacity for violence isn’t a purgative thrill but a surrender to urges that are cruel, sudden, arbitrary and meaningless. It refuses to comfort or console us or even to assure us that we’re not like the unstable humans on-screen.
For those reasons and more, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is an absolute must-see for fans of American action films. The final scene seems to offer a clear “To Be Continued” set-up to make this a trilogy. I’m eager to see the next psychologically disturbing pot of crimson paint these artists hurl over the silver screen.