‘Sicario’ sequel fails to address problematic storytelling, hides behind men shooting each other

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

Nobody asked for a sequel to the surprise semi-hit “Sicario” when it was released in 2015. Nobody is asking for one now, but “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” has arrived nonetheless, filled to the brim with gunshot wounds to the face and murders of innocents. Of course, this franchise was never trying to be anything other than intensely hardcore, and its latest installment does complete this mission — perhaps to a fault.

In “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro return as the grouchy and severe Matt Graver and the killer-who’s-a-softie Alejandro, respectively. The United States intends to incite a war among Mexican drug cartels in an effort to weaken the infrastructure of all the cartels at once, and to do so, they kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a powerful drug lord. Simultaneously, middle schooler Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez) is sucked into a new lucrative trade — smuggling Mexicans across the border into Texas. As the two narratives converge, the U.S. government’s plan more or less collapses, leaving Matt and Alejandro to deal with the aftermath.

There are threads of strong storytelling in here — characters oozing with moral ambiguity, constantly evolving allegiances and a suspenseful narrative all sound like great ingredients. But this sequel sheds the strengths of its predecessor, including Emily Blunt, whose omission is but one instance of the violent expendability of women within the “Sicario” series.

Not only was Blunt’s character in “Sicario” shot in the chest, used as a pawn and then wholly excluded from the sequel, but the sequel only features two relevant female characters — one, a 16-year-old girl kidnapped and manipulated by government agents, and the other, a supposed government executive whose direct orders are only ever ignored by Brolin and company.

With its masturbatory obsession with dominating males, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is ultimately a celebration of toxic masculinity and an homage to problematic stereotypes of Latinx machismo. Even though watching del Toro conquer brutal odds is at times pretty damn epic, viewers can’t help but crave a smidge of vulnerability just to remind them what’s at stake and why everybody’s shooting at each other in the first place. Much of Miguel’s screen time is spent on characters telling him to “be a man” — or rather, embrace a life of crime and violence.

Miguel’s narrative arc could have been superb. But, like all other characters in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” who are played by exceptional actors but are written as inherently shallow, his choices and their consequences are never fully reckoned with.

This builds to a letdown of an ending, one that offers neither cliffhanger nor catharsis. It’s unclear what director Stefano Sollima wants us to take away. Sure, his characters are willing to do anything to survive, but why? And should that reasoning justify their excessive violence? No answer is to be found in the conclusion, nor anywhere in the rest of the film.

These characters have families and loved ones, they have hopes and fears, but these traits never really inform any of their choices. There are moments when Sollima attempts to force an emotional connection, but they aren’t clicking. The most notable attempt might be the paternal dynamic that emerges between Alejandro and Isabel. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t work — Alejandro did kidnap her, after all.

If the film set its sights no higher than grippingly tense standoffs, shocking brutality and a good ol’ fashioned bloodbath, then Sollima can pat himself on the back. But it would be a shame for this film to not aim at least as high as its predecessor, and its puzzle pieces don’t fit together quite as well as they did in “Sicario.” There were, once upon a dream, rumors of a third “Sicario” installment. Redemption may be on the way, even if “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” doesn’t generate too much buzz.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is now playing at California Theatres. 

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].