458. Sicario: Day of the Soldado

★★

The second half of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” feels like a legitimate, necessary sequel to Dennis Villeneuve’s tightly-wound, renegade thriller. The first half feels something between an extended Wikipedia entry and a rambling ode that was included in a hastily-written, “Sicario” novelization. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” eventually gives us the movie we’ve been waiting for, but its a shame that had to sit through an hour of amateur exposition just to get there.

If you’ve seen the first “Sicario,” you’d question the need for a sequel, since original story left behind plenty of bullet shells and bloody corpses but few unanswered questions. But “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” was able to find storytelling leverage through that one thing that makes government officials overreact and devote endless, violent resources to stop: Terrorism. Instead of poor families looking for a better life, now suicide bombers with Muslim heritage have joined the distressed in crossing the U.S./Mexico border. And after bombers kill more than a dozen shoppers at a Kansas City grocery store, the U.S. government is ready to slide drug cartels underneath the terrorism banner.

For Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), this is fantastic news. He’s given whatever resources necessary by Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine), and adopts an Afghan war strategy of letting the cartels wipe each other out. To do that, Graver enlists the mysterious, near-mystical Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to start bloodshed between the cartels. To do this, Alejandro must kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a Mexican drug kingpin, to make the Reyes family think another cartel kidnapped her. From that point on, all Graver and Alejandro need to do is sit back, enjoy the popcorn, and watch on a flat-screen from a safe, military base as the cartels rip each other to shreds in the Mexican streets. But just like the Afghan and Iraq wars that inspired Graver’s strategy, things go horribly awry, with Alejandro bonding with Isabel and putting him at the other end of Graver’s rifle.

There’s enough there to sustain one hell of a movie, but “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” digs its own desert grave with a needless B story about a teenage boy Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who’s recruited as a border guide for desperate migrants. Interspersed between shots of the real story, we watch as the quiet but self-assured Miguel get enticed into the cartel life with promises of riches that his family has never seen before. Miguel’s saga is supposed to give us a glimpse of the life of the cartel members, how easily they’re plucked and swindled at such a young age to march side-by-side with murderers.

The idea of Miguel’s journey is compelling but feels awkwardly shoe-horned into “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” There’s clear allusions between Miguel and Isabel, how it seems each would flourish if they were in the other’s shoes. Miguel would likely keep hsi head down and obey orders at Isabel’s fancy prep school, while the combative, headstrong Isabel would punch and kick her way up the ladder in the cartel ranks. But those themes have no impact when we forget Miguel’s even in the movie every time he’s not on screen.

Unsurprisingly, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado’s” action sequences are as stunning as its predecessor, each barrage of bullets and lazily-tossed grenade a cathartic delight to witness on-screen. It’s a feat that director Steffano Sollima pulls off almost effortlessly, capturing the controlled mayhem of this frantic, needless war. But when brains aren’t being splattered, it feels like Sollima is trying too hard to emulate Villeneuve’s distinct visual style from the first film. We see the familiar wide-angle, zoomed-out shots from “Sicario,” making $100,000+ Chryslers and Humvees look like left-behind Hot Wheels and Micro Machines. At first, it’s a clever visual effect emphasizing just how these expensive cars and artillery are nothing more than toys for political higher ups who won’t face any of the actual damage from this battle. But when we see so many of the same shots of tiny helicopters flying at low altitude towards majestic landscapes, we can’t help but wonder if this is less a “Sicario” film and more a sequel to “Arrival,” since Villeneuve used that effect so often in his 2015 sci-fi classic.

When “Sicario: Day of the Solado” is effective, its relentless in its emotional and entertainment impact. But when it tries too much and too hard, the storytelling silence is deafening. “Sicario” was interesting because it revealed just how much expensive carnage and misery is spent on a relatively benign political issue compared to bigger things happening in the world. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” asks what would happen if dismantling the drug cartels was made the main priority of the U.S., if anything would change. The answer is an expected no, but the way “Sicario: Day of the Solado” answers that question is less than convincing.

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