'Sicario: Day Of The Soldado' Review: A Stunning Benicio Del Toro Can't Save This Half-Baked Sequel

In some alternate universe, there is a version of The Revenant that stars Benicio Del Toro. It's easy to picture while watching Sicario: Day of the Soldado. As Alejandro, the near-superhuman hitman introduced in the first Sicario (2015), cuts a swath of destruction through Mexico, he faces greater and bloodier odds, to the point that it becomes almost laughable. That isn't a bad thing in and of itself; the problem is that this is a Sicario that wants to be a Logan. Unfortunately, superimposing Western tropes and a sudden heart-of-gold narrative onto a film that doesn't really fit into those constraints — and doesn't benefit from them, either — is a losing game.

If the film (directed by Stefano Sollima) were a straightforward Western, it might work, but Sicario is a franchise (though it most certainly doesn't need to be, but more on that later) that's inextricably linked to the U.S. War on Drugs, fear-mongering, and, in this latest installment, issues of immigration. As such, the red flags start popping up from the film's very first frame. Among the people we see frantically trying to cross the border are suicide bombers, leaving prayer rugs behind in the desert and claiming children among their victims. In the following set-up, ISIS gets a namedrop, as does the Iraq War, just in case the much more generalized take on terrorism wasn't already obvious enough. (At the risk of a mild spoiler, it turns out that the threat of terrorism is a red herring, which seems irresponsible at best.)

To counter the increase in cartel human trafficking, which is posited as the reason why the terrorists are able to get to the border to begin with, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls in his old buddy Alejandro. They're set to run a false flag operation, kidnapping the daughter of a major cartel boss and pinning it on one of the other cartels. There's just one hitch: the boss in question is the same man who killed Alejandro's family so long ago.

If you think you can tell where the story's going, you're probably right. Day of the Soldado can't quite be called redemptive, but it comes damn close. Stretches of the movie are spent with just Alejandro and the girl, Isabel (Isabela Moner), with a similarly "tough guy with a soft side" element coming through as Matt does his best to keep Alejandro protected. Again, in any other movie, these storylines might work. But they don't mesh with the bleakness established by the first film, and turn the characters into (admittedly bloody) antiheroes in a way that's difficult to reconcile with the killing machines that the marketing seems to want us to think they are.

The disparity is made worse by the way the film fails the children in it. There's Isabel, who at least has some dialogue and some of the most horrifying instances of being exposed to extreme violence at a young age, and then there's Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager who is first introduced making sure his younger siblings get to school, and is just as quickly brought into the fold of the local cartel to help with trafficking. Though Rodriguez does a fine job, he's working with next to nothing; Miguel almost doesn't have any dialogue, and the way that his appearance is used to code his rise as a would-be gangster feels as stereotypical as the film's stabs at bringing terrorism into the mix.

There's an interesting point hidden somewhere about the ways in which present conflicts affect younger generations, but it's lost in a story that's more interested in its macho heroes and their crises of faith. I couldn't help but feel that the movie would feel more solid to the touch if the teenage characters had been given more room to grow, or excised entirely. Half-baked as they are, they're frustrating rather than sympathetic.

This isn't to say that there's nothing to like — Del Toro is magnetic, pulling off a Frankenstein's monster-esque sequence that is easily the film's best, and though Roger Deakins's cinematography is untouchable, Dariuzs Wolski coaxes a horrible kind of beauty from the way that bright helicopter beams cut through the blue night. But, ultimately, Day of the Soldado is crippled by its imbalances. By the time that the film wraps up, any sense of unpredictability or suspense has dissipated into just how determined it seems to be to a contemporary Western dressed in a border story's clothes (or is it the other way around?). But — and maybe it's just because of the current political climate — you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

/Film Rating: 4 out 10