Benicio del Toro Saves "Sicario" Sequel

If 2015’s “Sicario” was an elegy, meditative and sobering, “Sicario: Day Of The Soldado” is a brassy power ballad. It swaps out artfulness for bombast, trailing hopelessly behind its progenitor in both sophistication and sweep. As if there could be any other outcome.

Absent are director Denis Villeneuve, star Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the now-late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, in their place a new creative team led by returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River”). Only three members of the original film’s cast return: Josh Brolin as morally flexible CIA agent Matt Graver, Benicio del Toro as impulsive assassin Alejandro Gillick, and Jeffrey Donovan as Graver’s right-hand Steve Forsing.

The scale of the story is larger, but superficially so. In lieu of the internal struggle of Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer and her discomfort with the illegal tactics employed by Graver and company in the war against drugs at the United States Mexico border, Sheridan pivots. At first, it’s to the trafficking of terrorists across the border, which Graver’s unit combats by staging a kidnapping in an attempt to turn the cartels against each other.

Italian director Stefano Sollima struggles with the stock action tropes of the film’s first hour. As our antiheroes abduct Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the teenage daughter of a drug kingpin, the loss of Deakins’ handsome photography and Villeneuve’s gift for pacing weighs “Soldado” down like an anchor. Brolin and del Toro’s characters don’t so much morph into action movie archetypes as become them immediately, their previously hushed incarnations instantly rising to a shout.

Fortunately, Sheridan has something far more compelling in mind for del Toro in the movie’s back half.

We’re reminded that it was the drug lord-ordered execution of Alejandro’s family that reduced him to a vengeful shell of a man. In Isabela Reyes he finds a flicker of redemption, becoming identifiable as a human being presumably for the first time since his wife and daughter were taken from him. It’s reductive to submit that “Soldado” becomes an Alejandro-Isabela road movie, but the pic’s heart – not to mention all of its thrills – are in Alejandro’s longshot attempt to get Isabela over the border, safely into the United States.

The machinations of the plot prove inconsequential. The shading and symbolism that Villeneuve brought to the table are all out in the open here; ugly racial stereotypes run rampant, all struggle external but for Alejandro. Blessedly, del Toro is as much of a pleasure to watch here as he’s ever been, commanding the screen in a way that reminds us of how he’s been wasted in big-budget swill in recent years.

Alternately, Brolin’s performance is in line with the rest of the film’s failings: skin-deep and occasionally amateurish in comparison to the last go-round.

But del Toro is a shining light. When the picture works, it is purely his, finally coalescing in a few moments that approach previous greatness, aided by a late game return of Jóhannsson’s dark, ominous theme music. “Soldado” ends up the worst of Taylor Sheridan’s four scripts-turned-features to date, a disappointment that doubles as a testament to the heft of his abilities. A low point we can live with.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 29, 2018
Studio: Sony Pictures
Director: Stefano Sollima
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Catherine Keener
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, bloody images, and language)