Sicario 2 grapples with some big issues, but doesn’t always get them right
by Andrew Millman
Like most sequels, Sicario: Day of the Soldado expands the original’s scope and is also not as good as the original. The sequel no longer has Emily Blunt as its lead, nor does it have Denis Villeneuve as its director, each loss to the detriment of the film. In the sequel, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin reprise their roles and make an effective and entertaining duo, but without Blunt there is something missing. Her character was the first film’s moral compass, knowing right from wrong and caring about the distinction. Brolin and del Toro’s characters don’t have a similar sense of morality, or at least not ones that align with legality. Brolin’s character, Matt Graver, is a CIA agent who does the dirty work that the government wants done but can’t legally, while del Toro is a for-hire mercenary (the “Sicario” of the film’s title) from Colombia named Alejandro.
There are two inciting events at the beginning of the film. First, an Islamic terrorist blows himself up when he is caught attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Then, three suicide bombers attack a grocery store in Kansas City, Missouri. It is later discovered that one of the suicide bombers was Yemeni and crossed the border to enter the United States. There’s just one problem for in this premise for a film that presents itself as a realistic portrayal of contemporary events on the border and that is that “terrorists crossing the border” is a far-right conspiracy theory with no basis in reality. A few months ago, a conservative congressman from Pennsylvania went on Fox News to claim without any evidence that terrorists crossed the southern border to commit the Las Vegas shooting, which is absurd. According to the Cato Institute (a conservative think tank), the Mexican border has never been used as a passage for terrorists to enter the country because it is dangerous and ineffective.
However, going off this pretense, the United States government decides that the Mexican cartels are a national security threat and must be destroyed, so it declares the cartels to be terrorist organizations. The legal definition of terrorism is acts of violence committed by individuals or groups to achieve a political goal. Cartels don’t have a political goal because their goal is profit. This legal maneuvering allows the government to treat the cartels as a national security issue, not a law enforcement one, furthering the discussion of the militarization of police from the first film. After the torture of a Somali pirate earlier in the film, this is the second incident of the government doing questionable things to achieve its goals. With this new authorization, Graver’s brilliant plan to for taking down the cartels is to use “lessons learned in Iraq” (because that went so well) and trick the cartels into killing each other. His plan to start a war between cartels involves kidnapping the teenaged daughter of a cartel boss on her way home from school and framing a rival cartel. This is surprisingly relevant considering the Trump administration taking migrant children from their parents to deter future border crossings. Both used children as pawns to achieve their goals for border security.
Graver kidnaps the cartel scion with Alejandro and a group of mercenaries. Their elaborate plan involves bringing her into the United States and then back into Mexico to hand her off to the Mexican army in the territory of a rival cartel to create chaos. This elaborate plan is the stuff of thriller movies and not real life, so it doesn’t go well. The rest of the film is basically a action movie and a thrilling one at that as Matt and Alejandro face the consequences of their failed plan. One of the best parts of the film is when Alejandro seeks the help of a Mexican farmer, who’s deaf, and speaks to him through sign language. It’s inclusion of a disabled character that doesn’t focus on the disability. There’s also a subplot involving a Mexican-American teenager who is lured into joining a gang of human traffickers that eventually folds into the main narrative of the film.
In the end, I couldn’t decide if the film’s commentary on American intervention in foreign countries was intended or not. In my opinion, the film showed the dangers of American interference in other countries, like the real-world examples of Vietnam and Iraq. Later in the film, it is revealed that two of the three terrorists from the earlier attack were from New Jersey, meaning that the whole reason for the mission was based on incomplete information. Graver disregarded this earlier in the film and it proved disastrous later, another point analogous to the real world. However, the film frequently took the tone of glorifying the American intervention and holding up Brolin’s character as a hero, which he most definitely is not. Movies are often conservative by default in that there is a individualistic hero who saves the day through his own talents and valor. This tone does not serve the story well. The sequel has also been criticized for stereotypical portrayals of Mexicans and Muslims, often painting them as the enemy of the virtuous Americans and conflating them into one non-white terror. This is again the product of complex issues being simplified to fit into a movie narrative that lacks requisite nuance.
Sicario 2 is certainly ham-fisted, but that doesn’t mean its message isn’t worthwhile. The film is an example of how easily and quickly seemingly-invincible American interventionism can go awry, even though it does have some glaring flaws. This sequel ends with a scene referential to the final scene in The Godfather and sets up a potential next film in the series, which the original did not. Sicario 2 is not as good as its predecessor, but it’s still an enjoyable movie and one that deals with a host of current issues in a manner that at the very least incites debate. The film lost something without Villeneuve and Blunt (not to mention Daniel Kaluuya, before Get Out and Black Panther). If there is a sequel, I hope that all three return, along with Brolin and del Toro.