The Reason Denis Villeneuve Didn't Direct Sicario: Day Of The Soldado

Denis Villeneuve's 2015 film "Sicario" took a familiar take on the complexities of the border war and turned it into a nuanced thriller. Villeneuve brought to the story his typical technical precision and intuitive staging, the same qualities that made him capable of crafting a sensational adaptation of "Dune." With the story of FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), a moral person navigating the modern world of U.S. and Mexican Cartel warfare, Villeneuve was given the chance to make an action movie on his own terms.

In a way, an action movie was a test of Villeneuve's sensibilities, a test of whether or not he could maintain his craft and artistic identity while helming a genre piece. His success formed a clear bridge from the intense psychological dramas of his past, like "Incendies" and "Prisoners," to the blockbusters he makes now.

"Sicario" received Oscar nominations and became a modest box office hit. This gave its writer, the wildly prolific Western scribe (and Texas Cowboy Hall of Famer) Taylor Sheridan, the chance to write a sequel and further build out his fictional world, bringing back characters like Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). While 2018's "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" would turn out strikingly different from the original, that had more to do with the change in director. Villeneuve had no involvement with the sequel. Instead, Italian director Stefano Sollima took charge.

Villeneuve in bloom

By the time of "Sicario's" release, Villeneuve was already capitalizing on his Hollywood success, attempting to secure as many major productions as possible. In a 2015 Indiewire interview, he was talking about Amy Adams' character in his upcoming film "Arrival," and her similarities with Emily Blunt's character in "Sicario."  Other contemporaneous interviews were asking Villeneuve about what would become "Blade Runner 2049," which wouldn't even be released for another two years. He had, in a short time, become very busy.

Meanwhile, Lionsgate was confident in the success of "Sicario," and commissioned a sequel to the film in September of 2015, even before it saw a wide release. Beyond their faith in the movie's Oscar potential, it was clear that its stark and timely narrative through-line could lead to box office success. At the time, Villeneuve was still attached in some capacity, according to Variety's report on the initial announcement. 

Sheridan signed on to write the sequel as well, conceiving it as an "anthological" follow-up that would have little to do with the plot of the original beyond some of its main characters returning (but not Emily Blunt). Specifically, the focus would be on Benicio del Toro's calm, existential assassin character, Alejandro.

The replacement director

For Villeneuve, "Sicario" was the chance to do a "hybrid of arthouse film and action movie," a rare fusion that he nevertheless succeeded in creating. However, early in the sequel's development, Villeneuve ultimately shifted his focus to the massive undertakings of "Arrival" and "Blade Runner 2049" (let alone "Dune"), and would no longer be involved.

For the man who eventually came aboard to direct "Day of the Soldado," Stefano Sollima, his interest was in making a Hollywood movie. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Sollima claimed that when he read Sheridan's script, he recognized that it was the "kind of movie [he'd] love to watch in theaters — and make as a filmmaker."

Even if he lacked the arthouse prestige with which Villeneuve became associated, Sollima was certainly qualified in taking the reins on a Hollywood thriller. In the Italian film and TV industry, he was best known for producing and directing episodes of the massive mob drama "Gomorrah," an international success which saw an American release on HBO Max. Beyond that show, his 2012 directorial debut "ACAB — All Cops are Bastards" even had some of the same grit as the original "Sicario," the same toughness, machismo, and unclear moral lines between law enforcement and criminals. If there was a major shift from one movie to the next, it was in the approach each director brought to Taylor Sheridan's material.

An unpopular sequel

Without the presence of Emily Blunt's Kate Mercer, "Day of the Soldado" lost out on the original film's moral center. And without Denis Villeneuve's masterful sense of tension and character, without Roger Deakins' lovingly sculpted images, the nature of Sheridan's story felt a lot cheaper and a lot more exploitative. Criticisms came not just for its weaker story but also for its leaning into damaging stereotypes about immigrants crossing the Mexican border.

Still, Sollima was able to craft a competent and stylish action movie, something strong enough in its own right when you didn't think about the story. Rather than remake Villeneuve's movie, he made his own. It's entirely possible that Sollima and Sheridan simply didn't complement each other's strengths. When the writer and director collaborated again, on the 2021 Tom Clancy adaptation "Without Remorse," it was probably the weakest link in either man's filmography thus far.

While Villeneuve was busy with "Blade Runner 2049," crafting a 35-years-in-the-making follow-up to a science fiction classic that was even better than the original, his own beloved action thriller got a more typical sequel, studio-mandated and without his involvement. Still, when the movie was released, he put his name behind it, calling it a "hell of a good movie."