“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” opens on the Rio Grande, at the witching hour, with people re-crossing the frontier that crossed them. A helicopter shines a spotlight on a group of migrants and they scatter into the night. One man is separated from the pack and surrounded by border patrol agents. To our shock, he detonates a suicide bomb — Mexican drug cartels, it seems, are circumventing no-fly lists and sending jihadis into America over land.
CIA “Special Activities” agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) sees an opportunity to leverage that rumor in his continual war against the cartels. He is emboldened by the pliant Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and his underling Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener). They are intent on proving their administration is tough on crime, despite a President “Who doesn’t have the stomach for it” and fears impeachment. As in the first “Sicario,” “Day of the Soldado” illuminates the fact that the United States government can be just as fond of digging holes in the desert as the cartels.
When tasked with stirring up violence, Matt thinks the best person for the job is an old friend. Even after eliminating one cartel lynchpin in the first “Sicario” picture, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) still has a taste for revenge for the family he lost. When teased with the opportunity for additional vengeance, he asks Matt about the rules: “How loose?” As loose as he wants to get — the cartels, the state police, and the national army all find themselves in the crosshairs.
Sadly there’s only one scene for arms supplier Andy Wheeldon (the superb Shea Whigham) who happily fills Matt’s request for Blackhawk helicopters and other tools of war. “Where’s the coup?” he asks with twinkling eyes.
Matt and Alejandro busy themselves wth achieving their stated objective: to furnish a war between the Matamoros and Reyes cartels. First they assassinate a Matamoros consigliere — Alejandro reveals an interesting way to rapidly fire a pistol — and then they kidnap the daughter of kingpin Carlos Reyes, Isabela (Isabela Moner), making it appear like a retaliatory act from the Matamoroses. We first see Isabela scrapping with a classmate at her Catholic school, so when she falls into Alejandro’s hands, the film tries and almost succeeds to make her feel like more than a pawn.
We also follow Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) a recruit for minor cartel player Gallo’s (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) gang. He gets advice from his superior — “they’re sheep, treat them like it” — and starts taking people into Texas.
His story is separate from Alejandro and Matt’s, but then again things always intersect at the border. Del Toro is convincing, slippery, and nearly as spooky as Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” approaching his prey on blood-spattered cat’s feet. For his part, Matt intimidates even while wearing Crocs and opens a conversation with a suspect by explaining, “Waterboarding is when we can’t torture.”
For the actors’ good work, “Day of the Soldado” is worth seeing but Stefano Sollima’s direction is a step down from the gangbusters work of Denis Villaneuve (and cinematographer Roger Deakins) in the first film.
In contrast to other summer action movies, the plans of the protagonists do not work out. The CIA agents lose track of what they’re doing, lose track of the plot — they are subject to the same self-generating chaos as everyone else.
‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 2:02. Visit www.cinemawest.com.