By: Kevin Jordan
Whistling at dogs.
Note to readers: I have tried to keep politics out of my movie reviews, but when viewing Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the film’s politics are impossible to ignore given recent events. Thus, it is impossible not to write about politics here.
A list of current events in the United States includes: (1) the White House, Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security directing Border Patrol and ICE to commit human rights violations by separating migrant children from their families and then, losing track of those children (more than 2,000); (2) the Supreme Court upholding a travel ban that discriminates based on religious beliefs (despite the fully debunked national security claims, despite Trump’s own words and previous attempts that clearly show the ban is solely based on banning Muslims, and despite every lower court ruling the ban unconstitutional and lacking evidence supporting a national defense claim); and (3) Trump calling for ending due process rights for immigrants – another example of Trump attacking constitutional rights. Enter the new film Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which puts those issues into its mouth, chews them up, and spits the resulting ball into your hand like a five-year old who mistakenly thinks the resulting wad is awesome.
(SPOILERS to discuss plot points because the First Amendment is still a thing.)
Right off the bat, the film rubbed me (and my friend) the wrong way. The film opens by depicting myths that insist countless terrorists are entering the United States illegally via the Mexican border, which serves to demonize both Mexicans and Muslims in one fell swoop. This myth has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked (for details, you can start here, here, or here), and, while the idea should be a concern when vetting immigrants (illegal or otherwise), the number of immigrants discovered with suspected terrorist ties over the past several decades is infinitesimal. Put another way, crossing illegally via the US-Mexico border is arguably the worst way to get into the United States.
The opening sequence of the film depicts suicide bombers detonating themselves in a Kansas City grocery store and another bomber detonating himself at the border rather than be captured by ICE. Cut to agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) interrogating a just-captured Somali pirate, demanding to know who helped smuggle the terrorists through Mexico and into the United States. Addressing the due process rights issue, Graver threatens to call in an air strike on the pirate’s home (noting that the pirate’s brother is there) if the pirate does not answer Graver’s question. The pirate tells Graver he thinks Graver is bluffing and Graver responds with “we are in Africa. I can do whatever the fuck I want,” then, proves it by ordering the strike. Not only did Graver piss all over due process for everyone killed in the strike, but he committed a war crime. After threatening more of the pirate’s family members, the pirate reveals that a Mexican drug cartel leader, Carlos Reyes, is responsible for the smuggling. The New York Times addressed why this is not a thing, but this movie is committed to depicting fairy tales. So, the next logical question is – is there a princess involved?
Funny you should ask that. Not only is there a princess, Graver literally uses the terms “king” and “prince” when describing his plan to attack the cartels to the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine). He wants to kidnap Reyes’ daughter, Isabela (Isabela Moner), but make it look like a rival cartel kidnapped her in order to start a war between the cartels. Since this plan is obviously wildly illegal, it must be done off the books and fits perfectly into what this movie is selling. Mythical problems require drastic solutions.
Putting the political stuff aside for the moment, the plot and premise are solid for a fictional movie and are executed well for the first two acts of the movie. Graver is menacing and soulless in the execution of his duty as a soldier and Brolin nails this role. His superior, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), is also a soulless government ghoul, one-upping Graver by ordering him to kill Isabela after the mission goes awry (not a spoiler; this is literally shown in the previews). Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) is there as well because this is a sequel to Sicario, not Pacific Rim, and working with Graver until Gillick’s murder is also ordered by Foards. Moner does a good job making scared faces and screaming, but Isabela is given no character development and is little more than a prop, both literally and figuratively.
By the end of the second act, the movie had mostly removed the bitter political taste, but then the third act happens. As mentioned earlier, Graver’s plan is wrecked when their Mexican military escort turns their guns on the Americans in the convoy. The Americans kill all of the Mexicans and escape back to the US, but Gillick remains behind to track down Isabela, who ran off during the fight. Gillick finds her, calls Graver for an extraction plan, but learns about Foards order to kill them (still no spoilers because whomever made and approved the preview are jerks). You would be forgiven for thinking this sets up a showdown between Graver and Gillick. It does not. At this point, the film just quits on itself.
My friend summed it up nicely, saying “it came off like they had no idea how to end the story.” For starters, the order to kill Isabela and Gillick only makes sense if you turn off your brain. Isabela only knows that she was kidnapped and rescued, which was completely by design, and Gillick is as trustworthy as Graver. Why not just send Isabela home and bring in Gillick? Second, no kind of showdown ever happens, which is maddening because that is the main hook in the preview. Finally, none of the plot lines are closed out, leaving the audience completely unsatisfied and with plenty of unanswered questions. Did the two cartels go to war? Are there repercussions for the botched plan that left a lot of dead Mexicans, including soldiers and police? Are terrorists still being smuggled across the border by the cartels? Did DHS and ICE really lose more than 2,000 children and have to be shamed into giving a shit? So. Many. Questions.
As a whole, Day of the Soldado is an uneven film with good acting, mediocre writing, and bad politics. To be fair, the film tosses a bone to the left when the President is referred to as a coward, but this film is largely an anti-immigration, propaganda wet-dream, complete with a child being forcibly separated from her parents by American officials (quite the accidental coincidence). Her father may be a drug-lord, and if the President is to be believed, all Mexicans are drug-lords (or something), so everything is okay. Also, this is not okay.
Rating: Ask for six dollars back and tune out the dog-whistles.