Continuing the bullet-riddled adventures of lawyer turned mercenary Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) and Department of Justice consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a lugubrious procedural about employees on both sides of the law whose allegiances to their employers have submerged them in a state of psychological blankness, their ethics or ideals displaced by the directive of accomplishing their missions by whatever means necessary. The structure of the film, directed by Stefano Sollima and written by Taylor Sheridan, is in lockstep with characters who find themselves shuffled from one locale to another, the protocol of their jobs interrupted and contradicted by the whims of their superiors.
Day of the Soldado begins as a basic mission movie—Gillick and Graver must disrupt some cartels—but by the end, the heroes are removed from the events leading up to that mission’s impetus as much as they are from each other. After a Kansas City supermarket comes under attack by suicide bombers, Graver is called into action, his ugly expertise in clandestine matters leading him into the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Riley (Matthew Modine). Under the austere supervision of Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), Graver is to apply a “lesson” the U.S. learned in Iraq by creating infighting within Mexico’s drug cartels, making things easier for the U.S. military.
Enlisting Gillick, Graver’s team kidnaps Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the teenage daughter of the region’s most powerful kingpin, making it seem like rivals carried it out. The plan is botched after Mexican police escorts turn on the Department of Defense caravan in a hellacious shoot-out that shakes with claustrophobic tension, as most of it is set inside the vehicle carrying the film’s scrambling antiheroes. Isabel flees into the desert and is pursued by Gillick, as Graver’s team moves on to Texas with a plan to rendezvous later.
Because the center of moral consciousness—and audience proxy—played by Emily Blunt in Sicario is absent here, fans of Denis Villeneuve’s original have reason to be wary that Day of the Soldado could be an exploitative macho romp of military men painting the desert red by exacting revenge on both drug dealers and Islamic terrorists (who are being smuggled across the border by cartels). But this film’s violence isn’t cathartic. Day of the Soldado finesses the stridency of its predecessor, which felt like it was patting itself on the back with its gloomy observations about the drug war and U.S. military policy. As the bureaucratic superiors complacent about passing the buck for heinous decisions, Modine and Keener are rendered with an almost undead pallor, their characters sucking the life out of those under their watch. Looking at such ghostly countenances juxtaposed against the haggard wornness of antiheroes Gillick and Graver, the state of moral dread works on a tacit level that’s much more disconcerting than the verbal exhortations of Sicario.
Still, there’s a feeling that Day of the Soldado pulls its punches. A bureaucracy that seems to have some recognition of whatever the hell it’s doing almost feels like the stuff of fantasy (“POTUS doesn’t have the stomach for this,” one character states, assuming the film’s ersatz commander in chief has a capacity for revulsion). Furthermore, the film’s nihilism can be more chic than guttural. Like Sheridan’s screenplays for David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water and his own Wind River, Day of the Soldado superficially brings to mind the similarly amoral, violent desert sagas of Sam Peckinpah. However, it lacks the demonic energy of Peckinpah’s sojourns into evil; the eponymous noggin of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia would be little more than a macabre prop in Sheridanville, whereas Peckinpah made the discarded mound of fly-infested meat the quiet and almost sentimental center of the story.
Maybe that’s why Day of the Soldado’s strained credulity in the last act has an undercurrent of kooky exhilaration, as the plot takes leaps that feel as reckless as they are refreshing in such a doleful film of terminal prognoses. As Graver says multiple times, “Fuck it all.” The film’s late affronts to plausibility exhibit that ethos precisely, as well as echo the discontent of summer 2018.