In non-illustrated, Review

SICARIO, meaning hitman in Spanish, was lauded critically and a modest box office hit in 2015, raking in around $85 million worldwide. That was enough to warrant a sequel, and it’s entitled SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO. That one translates to “Hitman: Day of the Soldier,” not the best of titles, but the follow-up is exceptionally tense and gritty just like its predecessor. It too raises questions concerning the effectiveness of our nation’s ‘war on drugs.’ However, this sequel also raises unfortunate questions about its plotting. At times, it makes no sense, and the lapses in logic keep it from being as successful as the first.

Emily Blunt isn’t in this one, and not having her FBI agent present abdicates any pretense of a moral center. You’ll remember that her character Kate Macer reluctantly went along with the secret U.S. government task force, spearheaded by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, intent on bringing down the Mexican drug cartels by any means necessary. Their relationship was an uneasy mix as Macer’s’s by-the-book mentality continually clashed with Graver’s looser, more maverick methods. In particular, she couldn’t abide Graver’s partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), a former drug cartel lawyer, now employed to help the soldiers find and take out the bad guys. Gillick also had personal scores to settle, especially with the drug kingpin who murdered his wife and child, and that left Macer feeling compromised by aiding such efforts.

After wreaking havoc and satisfying his revenge, Gillick even forced Macer to sign a waiver legitimizing the operation. He threatened to kill her if she didn’t, and the righteous FBI agent was forced to go with the flow. Well, she’s not in this one, and now Gillick and Graver have carte blanche do whatever it takes to further accelerate their mission. Their scheme this time is to kidnap a drug kingpin’s daughter and make it look like a rival faction is behind it, ensuring in-fighting that will take down the drug trade from within. It’s an intriguing strategy, but the methods they use to put their plan into action create the first fraying snag in the plot.

Graver and Gillick decide to snatch Isabel Reyes, the surly teen daughter of one cartel top dogs, while she is being transported from school in a guarded SUV. That idea seems far too conspicuous and could create a ton of collateral damage on a busy Mexico City street. There are also cameras everywhere in such places these days, so it’s not like they’d be unidentifiable. Sure enough, things go awry, and both sides lose lives and vehicles. Wouldn’t it have been easier to capture Isabel at school when she was on the playground, without armed guards watching over her?

As played by the 16-year-old Isabela Moner, the character of Isabel is both vicious and vulnerable. Her very first scene finds her kicking the crap out of a classmate at recess. It’s an incredibly violent scene, indicating that the drug trade has likely turned Isabel into an entitled and ruthless kid. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, apparently.) And it indicates too that the team might have been smarter to target a more malleable kid.

Then, to gain her confidence, the team pretends to rescue the girl by posing as DEA agents. But rather than have someone who would be a new face pose as her DEA conduit, Graver assigns Gillick to the task. He is a man that her father knew all too well, one she likely saw many times. That seems to be a ridiculous choice at face value,  no? And, sure enough, it isn’t long before the savvy smart-ass figures out exactly who he is, and complications ensue.

Then the B story, concerning Texas teen Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez) starting to help his cousin Hector (David Castanada) run illegal immigrants across the border for cash, T-bones the A story in a poorly contrived way. Gillick and Graver just happen to be meeting a contact in the El Paso mall that Miguel frequents, and their SUV almost runs him down in the parking lot. Angry glances are exchanged, and of course, later on, Miguel will remember the face of Gillick and finger him later in the story when he’s incognito.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is a better scripter than that, as evidenced by the hugely intelligent screenplays he wrote for HELL OR HIGH WATER and WIND RIVER, so why succumb here to such coincidences, a veritable Deus Ex Machina? (A Deus Ex Machina is a plot device that solves a narrative problem through contrivance.) Yet as the film goes on, there are a lot of nonsensical moments like that. This is supposed to be ‘the day of the soldier,’ yet they can’t hire people who are loyal. Graver’s crew is betrayed and ambushed rather easily midway through the film. Then Isabel escapes, and Graver sends the all-too-recognizable Gillick to find her? Not only that but once Gillick finds her on foot, he can’t find his way back to the team. We see million-dollar computer equipment aiding them throughout, but the guy doesn’t have a cellphone with GPS?

The question of how easily identifiable Isabel would be to the general population becomes another issue in the film as well. Would the face of a kidnapped child belonging to a drug cartel boss be plastered all over the news so readily? And would every character be able to identify her immediately upon glancing at her? Is she a celeb like Jennifer Lawrence? Even the deaf Angel (Bruno Bichir), who graciously takes Isabel and Gillick into his modest home to hide for the night, knows who she is. By the way, his TV looks like it’s a beater from the early sixties, so one wonders how he gets such crackerjack reception out there in the desert enough to identify her.

Later, at the border, when Gillick tries to smuggle Isabel across to witness protection in Texas, they dress up as a migrant farmer and his son. Even with a cap on her head, and her locks shorn to bowl-cut length, everyone can readily identify her as the kidnapped girl from the news. Such plot holes are about as large as Chicago freeway potholes and they’re laughable. If this is the day of the soldier, I’d hate to see how much “winning” they’d accomplish in a week.

Soon, such conveniences and contrivances ensure that point blank bullets don’t cause death, Graver is abandoned by his sponsors who all get cold feet, and everyone goes rogue, even though they have a contract guaranteeing $10 million being funneled to their efforts each month. This franchise deserves a script as shrewd as the first one. But then again, the politics of this one are muddled too. Now, without Blunt’s moral character, we’re asked to cheer on these lawbreakers, even they turn soft and gushy and decide not to let the girl be collateral damage. It’s okay that others are mowed down in the process, just as long as she isn’t.

Despite all that, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO remains an effective nail-biter. The actors are all good, although Matthew Modine as an evil cabinet secretary paints with too broad a brush. Catherine Keener fares better, bringing an appropriate weariness to her part as the government flack overseeing the operation. Brolin and Del Toro are always terrific, and they can play tough in their sleep. The standout here is really the teenage Moner. She aces her complicated part, and the camera loves her. It’s a credit to director Stefano Sollima and his editor Matthew Newman that they spend a lot of time on her face, studying it, and not cutting away from her delayed reactions. Moner already understands that so much of character in the movies is revealed after the lines are read.

Sollima, taking over chores from Denis Villeneuve, who masterfully directed the first one, wrings the tension out of every scene, and ensures that we can follow the action in each set-piece. It’s accomplished work, and all the below-the-line artists bring their A-game. Composer Hildur Guonadottir, in particular, induces tons of menace in his spare score, creating chills before anything even happens in the scene.

Of course, the subject material here couldn’t be any timelier. The story sympathizes with many of the Latino characters caught in the vice of the drug world, especially those trying to escape it to America. SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is a provocative and affecting thriller, one that impresses on so many levels, but it should have filled in those plot holes on its journey to our Cineplexes.

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