In Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the grim, unpleasant sequel to the 2015 film that grappled with the morality of the drug war, there is no more grappling. What was once an ethical quagmire is now a harmless mud bath, wallowed in by swaggering, non-introspective federal agents who seem to enjoy killing. No one has any regard for life or law; worse, the film has nothing to say about that disregard.
The objective this time, voiced by a bellicose Defense Secretary (Matthew Modine), is to reclassify the Mexican drug cartels as “terrorists” (they smuggled a suicide bomber across the border) and treat them as such: no more Mr. Nice Guy, in other words. He summons Josh Brolin’s shadowy black-ops agent, Matt Graver, and assures him that he can get as “dirty” as he wants in the furtherance of his goals.
They strategize to weaken the cartels by pitting them against each other. To that end, Graver kidnaps a drug lord’s teenage daughter, Isabel (Isabela Moner), and blames a rival cartel. When that project gets screwed up, Graver and his semi-psychotic associate Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) have to do more egregious things to fix the bad thing they shouldn’t have done in the first place — but let me make it clear that that’s me editorializing. Neither character ever says the false-flag kidnapping of a minor was a mistake, or even acknowledges that it MIGHT have been. Graver is the kind of guy who tells a suspect they won’t waterboard him because “that’s what we do when we’re NOT allowed to torture.” His job is hurting and killing people, and he loves his work. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Meanwhile, in the border town of McAllen, Texas, a well-behaved Mexican-American teen named Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is persuaded by his older cousin (David Castañeda) to take a job for the cartel helping smuggle illegal immigrants across the border. This, Graver pointed out earlier, is more profitable than smuggling drugs nowadays, since unlike a kilo of cocaine, an immigrant who gets caught can try again later (repeat business).
Emily Blunt served as the conscience of the first film, but she isn’t in the sequel, and no one has taken her place. None of the government functionaries here show much interest in eradicating the drug trade — what they want to stop is the flow of immigrants, not the flow of cocaine. The fact that nobody questions anything or learns from their mistakes might be a potent metaphor for U.S. drug and foreign policy, but any self-reflection or nuance in Taylor Sheridan’s joyless screenplay has been flattened by Stefano Sollima’s blunt direction. The film has a patina of smug xenophobia that makes me feel sad and embarrassed for America — a dud of a movie that couldn’t have come at a worse time.