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‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Doesn’t Know Why the First ‘Sicario’ Was Good

Plus some other random thoughts about the Benicio del Toro/Josh Brolin thriller

Near the end of 2015’s Sicario, there’s a tense standoff between Kate (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent, and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious operative who doesn’t play by the rules. The whole film is a philosophical wrestling match between these two characters’ competing worldviews, and their debate comes to a head in a pivotal scene in which Alejandro wants her to authorize his questionable methods. (If she doesn’t, he’ll kill her.) Tearful and spent from their harrowing mission to bring down brutal Mexican drug cartels, she reluctantly signs the paperwork absolving Alejandro of any wrongdoing. Without a trace of emotion in his voice, he offers her some blunt advice: “You should move to a small town, where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You’re not a wolf — and this is the land of wolves now.”

As the scene concludes, Alejandro walks back to his car. Kate pulls her gun on him, entertaining the idea of stopping this amoral man once and for all. But she can’t do it — and he knows it. She’s not a wolf.

Since Sicario’s release, there’s been disagreement among viewers about whether Kate was weak for refusing to kill Alejandro. Denis Villeneuve, who directed the film, doesn’t see her action that way at all. “I think that she represents hope,” he once said. “Because the decision she makes at the end means that she will not follow their path. She will come back to her moral values, and for me, the last moment is very important. Even if you may feel that she’s less strong, it’s the opposite.”

Whatever your feelings about Sicario — I thought it was well-made, but also incredibly proud of itself for how woke it was about government corruption and the unwinnable War on Drugs — what powered the film was its ambiguity over whether Kate or Alejandro was ultimately right. Should we stick to our principles, even when our enemies don’t? Or do the ends justify the means, especially when dealing with unscrupulous criminals? Sicario let those questions linger long after the end credits.

Well, forget moral ambiguity, because Sicario: Day of the Soldado has arrived, and as it turns out, that wimpy, whiny girl Kate was totally wrong. To defeat America’s enemies, apparently we’ve got to be total Alejandros. This sequel doesn’t present that viewpoint with any sense of moral shading, though: Day of the Soldado embraces it fully, all guns blazing. Like its predecessor, Day of the Soldado is well-made. But I wanted to throw a brick through the screen.

Blunt isn’t in this sequel — I guess Kate took Alejandro’s advice? — which focuses on Alejandro and his partner Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a CIA agent who was also featured prominently in Sicario. Those two men embodied the first movie’s by-any-means-necessary perspective — there was a macho condescension to their treatment of the less-experienced Kate — and in Day of the Soldado, they operate unopposed. Villeneuve is also gone for this sequel, and with him is Sicario’s worrying, self-critical tone. Once again, our heroes are engaged in violent, often excitingly staged battles with abhorrent crime lords. But Day of the Soldado doesn’t want us to question the ethically iffy things the supposed “good guys” do in the name of defending the U. S. of A. — we’re cued to cheer.

You can tell that that’s the expected response from the way the film deals with those who dare stand in Alejandro and Matt’s path. Catherine Keener is a very good, Oscar-nominated actress, but in Day of the Soldado she’s reduced to playing a shrill CIA deputy director who keeps busting Matt’s balls, making his job harder to do. Meanwhile, Matthew Modine plays the Defense Secretary, a weasel of a man who authorizes Matt’s questionable tactics, turning on him when the plan backfires and the optics paint the American government in a bad light. In other words, two of Day of the Soldado’s principal antagonists are a pain-in-the-ass chick and a cuck in a suit who doesn’t have the guts to get his own hands dirty. To win the War on Drugs, apparently we just need some real men.

That crude, brotastic attitude extends to other elements of Day of the Soldado. Our heroes undertake a stealth operation involving the kidnapping of a cartel boss’s young daughter (Isabela Moner) in the hopes that it will start a turf war. Morally, that’s incredibly shady, but the movie’s attitude boils down to “Stop being a pussy — you wanna defeat these dark-skinned drug guys or what?” With the exception of del Toro, an Oscar-winning movie star, people of color in Day of the Soldado are mostly villains or desperate, impoverished foreigners. (Daniel Kaluuya, who played Blunt’s partner in Sicario, also isn’t in the sequel.) They’re basically racist stereotypes standing in the way of Alejandro and Matt’s brand of frontier justice. The fact that Moner’s character actually sparks a bit of compassion in these gung-ho warriors is mostly just patronizing: It takes an innocent little girl to remind the strong, burly men to have a semblance of a conscience.

Even some critics who like Day of the Soldado acknowledge how dog-whistle-y and problematic its outlook is. Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich gave the movie a positive review, but not before noting how the film callously incorporates loaded images of Middle Eastern terrorists and clandestine Mexican border crossings as xenophobic symbols of the scary dangers facing America. “Day of the Soldado is our generation’s Rambo: First Blood, Part 2,” Franich concludes, “a half-mad sequel transforming a traumatized political parable into a fantasy of all-American murder gods.” By the end of the film, I was curious which small town Kate had decided to move to — and if I could go there as well.

Here are a few other takeaways from Sicario: Day of the Soldado. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Yes, you can survive being shot in the face.

One of the most startling moments of Day of the Soldado occurs when Alejandro has a bag placed over his head by the cartel and is then shot at point-blank range, his body falling lifelessly to the ground as blood starts to trickle from the bag. So, he’s definitely dead, right? Nope: Hours later, Alejandro comes to, realizing that the bullet went through one cheek and out the other, missing his vital organs. He’s got a nasty wound, but he’ll live.

After the initial shock wore off, I thought, Wait, how easy would it be to survive a gunshot at close range? Well, it turns out that Day of the Soldado didn’t take too many liberties in presenting Alejandro as the luckiest guy ever. If you get shot in the face, you won’t necessarily die. But the situation has to be just right.

On Quora, someone asked, “Could you survive getting shot in the face?” The answers from different respondents basically boil down to “Yes, you can, as long as the bullet misses the brain.” Thomas Basterfield, who identifies himself as a “former firearms license holder,” writes, “There are countless case studies of suicide victims shooting through the temple or chin, only to fail and suffer greatly.” But even then, there can be dangers: “A bleeding temporal or maxillary artery, whilst controllable in bleeding, can potentially be lethal. If a high energy impact takes off the jaw or causing bleeding in the mouth or nose, then suddenly there is a very real risk of choking to death on blood, or dying from asphyxia.”

A search online for incredible gunshot-survival stories often lead to Jacob Miller, a Civil War veteran who supposedly lived with a bullet wound in his forehead for decades.

Jacob Miller

So yes, Day of the Soldado isn’t fudging too much by suggesting that Alejandro could survive. I doubt he’s going to look as handsome as del Toro does at the end of the movie, though, when it’s several months later and his face appears utterly unaffected by the bullet wound.

#2. I miss Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Several members of the cast and crew from Sicario didn’t work on Day of the Soldado. I’ve already mentioned a few of them, but the person whose absence is most notable is perhaps Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s certainly the most poignant.

For those not familiar with Jóhannsson, he was an Icelandic musician and composer who died earlier this year at the age of 48 and had earned Oscar nominations for The Theory of Everything and Sicario. Those two movies’ sonic DNA is so different, illustrating what kind of range he had: While the Stephen Hawking biopic had a floating, romantic score, his work on Sicario was as dark and ominous as the milieu it depicted. Jóhannsson was a master of brooding atmospherics, whether it was on intelligent, emotional sci-fi dramas (Arrival) or whacked-out midnight movies (the forthcoming Nicolas Cage thriller Mandy).

Jóhannsson didn’t write the score to Day of the Soldado — one of his disciples, Hildur Guðnadóttir, took on the job — but the rumbling menace he brought to Sicario is a heavy influence on the new film’s music. There’s even an incorporation of Sicario’s most memorable track, the rattling, moaning “The Beast.” Every time those low groans and distant crashes pop up on the soundtrack, you’re instantly thrust back into the paranoia of the first film. Day of the Soldado’s end credits pay homage to Jóhannsson’s passing, but the sequel’s borrowing of his iconic theme is the more fitting tribute.

#3. What was Benicio del Toro’s most challenging performance?

Del Toro has been in movies for 30 years, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Traffic. Recently, though, he’s been doing a lot of high-profile work in the Marvel films and The Last Jedi. (Day of the Soldado leaves the door open for a possible sequel — not to mention a whole franchise — that would put him center stage.)

And, of course, there’s his series of funny Heineken commercials.

When respected actors do television ads for upscale products, there’s always a chance that they’ll be labeled as sellouts. In fact, that’s exactly what Russell Crowe once called George Clooney after the Ocean’s 11 star started doing commercials. It’s also a reason why some Hollywood A-listers only appear in ad campaigns outside of the U.S.: They get paid a ton of money, but they don’t have to worry about their American fans bumping into the spots. (Filmmaker Sofia Coppola made this phenomenon the premise of her Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, which starred Bill Murray as a faded film star shooting a whiskey ad in Tokyo.)

But while some of that stigma has faded in recent years — actors like Chris Pine and Jon Hamm do voiceover narration for car commercials — having your face prominently used in a spot can still be a tricky proposition. Del Toro gets around the problem by being the butt of the joke in the Heineken ads — mocking his serious emoting, or the fact that people confuse him with Antonio Banderas — but I still think he’s a little self-conscious about the whole thing. You can tell because I’ve found the most challenging performance this great actor has ever given: pretending that he’s totally comfortable serving as an alcohol pitchman.

The entertainment channel ScreenSlam interviewed del Toro on the set of one of his Heineken ads to talk about his affinity for the beer, and he looks absolutely miserable playing the peppy, cheery spokesperson. He just can’t do it — his integrity as a dedicated, serious actor just won’t let him. Watch his poignant struggle:

On screen, del Toro has often played men either grappling with their difficult circumstance or reveling in their cockeyed strangeness. By comparison, this ScreenSlam clip delivers a new kind of tortured performance from the acclaimed actor.