“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (R)
One question is almost always asked when the sequel to a well-received film is released: Do you need to see the first film to appreciate this one? With “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (or “Hitman: Day of the Soldier”) there are two answers. If you’re only concerned with the story, no, you don’t have to see the 2015 film “Sicario.” It’s enough to know that both films are about turmoil on the U.S.-Mexican border and that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between who is good and who is bad. But both films also have intimate character studies going on within the plentiful action and bloodshed. However, if you want to understand the motivations of some of the characters in the new one, you’d better have seen the first one.
Taylor Sheridan wrote both films and he has once again placed Mexican drug cartels at the fore of those border problems, but the ante has been upped. Along with drug runners and Mexican citizens looking for refuge in the U.S., there many other people are making the crossing and in the opening minutes, it’s established that there are terrorists in the mix who have been directed to blow themselves up when they’re among Americans.
The Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) puts the military to work on this, then goes a step further by calling on Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a low key but very dangerous operative who, in the previous film, called himself an inter-agency task force chief as well as a representative from Homeland Security. It’s Matt who goes to Somalia, captures a powerful bad guy, demands to know about his involvement in terrorist smuggling at the Mexican border and when he doesn’t get what he wants from the man, proceeds to act without remorse.
The film then shifts gears, introducing an unrelated set of characters in a small Texas border town. Of most interest is Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a teenager who is talked into working for one of the cartels.
Then everything returns to the Matt Graver story, with talk of him leading a secret operation, beginning with a special “extraction” in Mexico that will, if plans go well, culminate in a war between drug cartels, which will then put a dent in the smuggling business.
The storyline all gets a bit confusing and then it gets even more complicated with the return of the first film’s most enigmatic character, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who, asked by Graver to work with him again, is guaranteed that if he does, he can play by his own rules.
Alejandro has no rules and is the loosest of canons. But, again, it’s important to know where he’s coming from, and much of that is revealed in the first film. Suffice it to say, he’s extremely dangerous, very smart and is a tortured soul. One of his jobs this time is to commit a series of nasty acts — murder and kidnapping among them — and make it look as though they were done by different cartels.
The film keeps returning to young Miguel’s increasingly shady activities, but those seem to be from a different movie ... until the script starts bringing events and people closer together.
This is a very tough, violent and uncomfortable movie. Danger is in the air and you’re constantly waiting for bad things to happen. The wait is never very long, as there are criminal acts and there is swift retribution for them. But it’s also a mesmerizing movie, filled with characters you care about as well as characters you wish you’d never met. A brief, odd coda initially feels out of place. But after some thought, it’s clear that it creates some strong, dramatic closure and should this sequel do well at the box office, it tidily opens the door for another one.