Sicario: Day of the Soldado

4 stars

Rated R, 122 minutes. Opens Friday.

If there was a way to calculate how many times I’ve watched the border sequence in 2015’s Sicario, I’m pretty sure I would hold the crown for most views.

Taking Denis Villeneuve’s direction, Roger Deakin’s masterful cinematography and the late Johann Johannsson’s score all into account, with a scene that would otherwise be boring if done by other filmmakers, it’s a real work of raw intensity. Most of Sicario is engineered that way. It always feels like there’s something going on, no matter how calm the waters seem.

The terribly titled sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, had some big shoes to fill. For one, I was not excited about the dream team of filmmakers not coming back for the second outing, aside from screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River), who is the most important ingredient in this disturbing Tex-Mex feast. And normally, you just don’t see sequels made for these kind of movies. If you do, it’s straight-to-DVD and starring Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage. The studio was able to assemble a B-squad, led by director Stefano Sollima (Gomorrah series), who manage to continue the tone of the original film and also find unique ways to push it even further.

Soldado (let’s just call it that — it’s Spanish for “soldier”) has an opening that’s hard to shake, especially given what’s currently going on at the border. It shows a group of people trying to run to their freedom, but are cornered by the Border Patrol. One man slips away and runs near a cliff before he realizes he has nowhere else to go. Once the patrol team closes in on the man, bam! A bomb goes off.

To add more unsettling imagery to the mix, that sequence is followed by the terrorists who managed to cross the border. In a single take, they enter a nearby grocery store and set off explosive charges, killing 15 people, including children. The last few seconds of that shot before the film cuts to its next scene will cause you to sink in your theater chair. It’s probably not an opening that will easily persuade you to see the film. But sometimes a movie has to go to a dark place so we can eventually find the light at the end of the tunnel.

After we get through the same amount of openings as Return of the King has closings, we finally see the Crocs shoes of Josh Brolin’s government official character, Matt Graver, enter the frame about 15 minutes in. If you remember from the first Sicario, Graver wears flip-flops. It highlights his don’t-care attitude and how he understands that you can’t take anything personal in this line of dirty work.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Josh Brolin is back as government official Matt Graver in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”

Speaking of dirty, Graver longs to keep things unclean. In one scene where he’s advised to get stitches, he says, “Why bother? I’m just going to need more tomorrow.”

Graver’s mission this round is to “start a war.” After learning that the Mexican drug cartels have been smuggling in terrorists, the CIA employs Graver and his team, including former undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro, who again steals the film), to eliminate the problem. To carry this out, they kidnap the daughter of a drug lord (a great Isabela Moner) as a tactic to incite a war between rival cartels. However, the mission goes awry when the Mexican government intervenes. More blood spills into the water and another hunt takes place.

The complexity of the story may seem like a lot to swallow, and at times it is, especially during the exposition dumps in the first quarter. But once you slowly fall into the film’s groove you’ll be hooked. Sheridan is an expert at fleshing out characters and scenarios. There are about three different story lines going on at once, but he weaves them together in ways that are surprising. Normally filmmakers choose not to focus on characters who are just there to serve a point in the plot. Sheridan, however, wants us to feel the heat from all sides of the tug of war.

The overall look of the film, this time shot by Dariusz Wolski (The Martian), supports the first film. Many shots are long takes or stays with a single character when certain things begin to hit the fan. Like the recently released horror film Hereditary, the film leaves audiences with the emotions of the characters instead of cutting the scene up like a Jason Bourne movie to make it intense. It lets the characters’ feelings do all the heavy lifting.

Soldado may occasionally veer off from moments that could really dig deeper into the societal issues at hand, but it still raises many questions that are significant considering what’s going on in our world. The film also doesn’t approach these devastating topics in a loud manner. The filmmakers allow the story to breathe and bring down the hammer when it’s called for.

Soldado is startling in the best possible way, and I will follow this series anywhere it goes.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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