Ain’t that America

Geopolitical tensions come to bear at U.S.-Mexico border

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Isabela Moner. Directed by Stefano Sollima. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a sequel, or rather, a kind of continuation of Sicario (2015), a very gritty action drama chronicling the U.S. government’s semi-clandestine “war on drugs” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some commentators are referring to the new film as a “border western,” and—like its predecessor—it does indeed have a lot of gunplay and desert terrain in it as well as some “cowboy justice” with armored vehicles and high-tech weaponry. But I’m also inclined to add that at this particular convulsive moment in history, Day of the Soldado really stands out as an action film with an unusual amount of emotional fury and geopolitical bite.

The first Sicario focused on figures from the FBI and the U.S. military battling the Mexican drug cartels on their own turf. That battle continues in Soldado but with the stakes raised via the traffic in illegal immigrants, including Islamic radicals. The fledgling FBI agent played by Emily Blunt is not present this time, but the much aggrieved activist lawyer and assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and the radically weaponized hardcore CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) are both back in full scheming, pock-marked fury.

Working on orders from the secretary of defense (a bilious-looking Matthew Modine) and his CIA minder (a weary Catherine Keener), Graver enlists Alejandro’s help in pulling off an attack meant to provoke a war between cartel oligarchs. The kidnapping of a cartel boss’s daughter (Isabela Moner) and the education and initiation of cartel gang recruit (Elijah Rodriguez) are secondary events that gain some unexpected significance as this tumultuous tale makes its way to a multifaceted, and somewhat provisional, finish.

As scripted by the suddenly prolific Taylor Sheridan (Sicario part one, Hell or High Water, Wind River, TV’s Yellowstone), Soldado seems to shrug off any pretense of making a resounding socio-political statement. But even in the guise of violent, high-energy action-genre entertainment, both of Sheridan’s Sicario scripts keep the blood and suffering of contemporary events nearby as their pulpy tales of violent intrigue unfold.

This “border western”—like action movies of all sorts—tends to celebrate individual struggles, heroic and otherwise, with social concerns and historical circumstances used mainly as dramatic backdrops. But here and elsewhere in Sheridan’s work, the barbed storytelling yields vigorous entertainment, but with the mists of so much contemporary history hovering, the complacencies of cinematic escapism never get a chance to really take hold. And the actions and choices of conflicted protagonists start to have some unexpected weight.