Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Directed by Stefano Sollima
In 2015’s “Sicario,” Emily Blunt played an FBI agent with experience in hostage scenarios, who’s dragged into something bigger, as an inter-agency task force tackles drug trafficking across the US-Mexico border. In one sense, it seemed like a movie with a strong female lead, and much of the focus of the movie is on her and her actions. But in another sense, her character is not much of a narrative lead at all – she’s a witness to actions undertaken and decisions made by others, rather than the actor or decision maker.
In that sense she’s our audience surrogate, as in so many other films, the person through whose eyes we are also witnessing those same actions and decisions. She’s outraged in the same moments that the filmmakers suspect we would also be outraged, and she acquiesces when we might acquiesce. She does make decisions but they’re often the kind where, realistically, there’s not much of a choice available and we’re similarly frustrated imagining ourselves in that same predicament. And as an example, she’s also a patsy – taken advantage of as a means to justify agency actions that wouldn’t be permitted on domestic soil, if not for the involvement of the FBI. She’s being played and we know that feeling.
I don’t know much about the genesis of this film from a business perspective, or why it doesn’t involve Blunt, but from a narrative perspective the decision to make a sequel without her character, Kate Macer, is interesting. If you think of her as the lead in the first movie, then the question becomes what would her role in a second movie be? Would she be a witness again, or would she be the true lead – with a more dominant role. The former would potentially make her character seem repeatedly passive, again a patsy for the plans of others. The latter, while perhaps more interesting, is a different film – perhaps more a spinoff than a sequel, depending on whether or not you see her or others as the center of the action in the first film.
The title character of the first film is Benicio del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro – a lawyer turned retribution-seeking assassin. With Josh Brolin as Matt Graver, the government operative who doesn’t so much handle him as periodically unleash him. With these two characters as the focus, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” makes perfect sense – it’s an escalation of that relationship, and there would be no reason to expect that their subsequent missions would involve Macer – they’ve used her and moved on to whatever comes next. Although that doesn’t preclude her future involvement, should their paths cross again – they just don’t here.
And that makes sense also in terms of Macer’s role in the original story. As our surrogate, she was there to react as her moral and ethical boundaries were repeatedly crossed. Graver and Alejandro seemed to be working within their respective comfort zones while she clearly wasn’t. But if that’s how they behaved with a character like Macer watching, then how will they behave without such scrutiny. At what point do they test their own boundaries and what is likely to push them over that edge.
In “Soldado: Day of the Soldado,” Graver is called in largely because he gets things done without much evidence of that edge being in sight, or perhaps existing at all. Drug trafficking has given way to people trafficking as the problem of the moment, with the concern being that among the genuine refugees and economic migrants crossing the border, there are terrorists using that same route to slip into the US. He’s given what appears to be carte blanche to destabilize the Mexican cartels, by setting one against another, to weaken their hold on the border crossing routes. And he again forms a team of mercenaries and calls in his primary attack dog, Alejandro.
In Blunt’s absence, we’re given other strong female characters in the form of Catherine Keener as Graver’s superior, someone who may have even fewer limits, and Isabela Moner as the teenage daughter of a cartel leader, and staged kidnapping victim. The Keener role especially is an interesting touch: Even in the comedy “Spy” with Melissa McCarthy, one of the more subtle feminist touches, aside from the more obvious depiction of McCarthy’s character succeeding alongside and despite the actions of the entrenched male spies, is that they all report to a strong female boss, played by Allison Janney. It’s the same approach that attempted to marginally offset the sexism in the Bond franchise, by having a female “M” played by Judi Dench. Here, the filmmakers seem to be shouting – yes, we’ve lost Blunt but we’re not disrespecting women – look at the powerful (if only supporting) women we’ve given you instead.
Watching, and enjoying, this film without having seen the first is possible but would remove both context and the pleasures of appreciating parallel story structures and the similar framing of certain set pieces, such as the vertical views of fast moving convoys of vehicles. Whether or not you enjoy both equally, or prefer one or other of the films, seems likely to depend on how you viewed the first film and Macer’s role in the story. I enjoyed “Sicario” greatly, but there’s more at stake in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” – and it’s a bigger, messier, more morally complex puzzle. It’s a story filled with errors and failed solutions, compared to the relative neatness of “Sicario.” It presents two flawed and damaged lead characters, in Graver and Alejandro, used to seeing the world in blacks and whites, suddenly immersed in more grey than they’re used to. And I found that even more engaging.