Sicario: Day of the Soldado has a prologue like something from the Terror Alert Desk of Sinclair Broadcasting.
After ISIS-ish bombers target a Costco in Kansas, investigators follow their trail to the U.S.-Mexican border, where (apparently) neon breadcrumbs lead them straight to a jackpot of telltale evidence.
"Over here," says one, pointing his gun/flashlight at items on the desert floor. "Prayer rugs."
Who'd have the nerve to engage in that kind of gaudy exploitation?
The answer is writer Taylor Sheridan, who's gone from Sons of Anarchy actor to screenwriter and Hollywood's leading purveyor of pulp fiction.
He made a deserved splash for his scripts for the original Emily Blunt-starring Sicario and Hell or High Water, which got him an Oscar nomination and an A-movie rep, but his B-movie instincts were already present. You saw them in Wind River, which blended his interest in marginalized people and cultural ferment with his neo-western appetite for a good gunfight and ultra-bloody revenge payoffs.
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Sometimes, he gets the mixture just right (Hell or High Water, the first Sicario), sometimes he goes over the top (his popular Paramount Channel series Yellowstone). In Day of the Soldado, you get a little of both. It starts with a sprawling, button-pushing survey of cross-border drug cartels and human trafficking, then narrows to an absorbing story of an assassin summoning what's left of his soul in order to save the life of a child.
The action starts with those prayer rugs, which provide unscrupulous U.S. officials (Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener) a pretext to reclassify the drug war as part of the War on Terror, giving them the extra-constitutional leeway they've long desired.
They then recruit their favorite clandestine operators Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his remorseless tip-of-the-spear Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) for the assignment: Run a false-flag operation to start a war among rival cartels, and shoot whoever survives.
Complications arise, and Alejandro ends up guarding a drug kingpin's daughter (Isabella Moner, quite good here), who is also a loose-end eyewitness targeted for death by rogue intelligence agents, cartel operators, corrupt cops – just about everybody. That's the bad news. The good news is Alejandro is willing to kill just about everybody to get her out of Mexico to safety.
Does he kill everybody? He sure makes the attempt, and the movie (capably directed by Stefano Sollima) is Sheridan's bloodiest scenario yet, which is saying something. And yet Soldado also shows what's compelling about Sheridan's stories – he's inclusive and culturally curious in his own mad way. There is a parallel drama about a border youth (Elijah Rodriguez) lured into the smuggling/cartel rackets, a subplot that gives the movie a broadened perspective and a varied rhythm before the story threads inevitably converge.
Sheridan leans toward the lurid, but with the blood is a marrow you don't get from other movies, where action is increasingly tied to fantasy. Soldado bludgeons its way into touchy border politics, and maybe lucks its way into a story focused on the moral imperative of protecting a single child.
The movie is grounded, too, in the tough-guy chemistry between Brolin and Del Toro, whose characters understand each other as men with blood on their hands, in a line of work where there is no soap.