What happens when an assassin grows a conscience?
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
A few years ago, we learned what a “sicario” was, thanks to screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who with “Wind River” has proven to be a fantastic crime-fiction writer-director) and director Denis Villeneuve. In simple terms, the appellation is Spanish for a hitman, but in their broodingly brutal film, the “Sicario” in question was a man named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former lawyer for a Mexican cartel kingpin whose wife and child were murdered, sending Alejandro on a quest for vengeance. Part of what made him so compelling was that Alejandro seemed like a secondary character in his own story, because the film turned the spotlight on Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent working a drug case near the border that draws her into the orbit of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a shadowy governmental cleaner. Alejandro happens to be Graver’s blunt instrument of choice when it comes to straightening up messes.
For chapter two of the “Sicario” narrative, Macer is gone. Apparently, the audience no longer needs a stand-in who is in way over their head. What the world requires now is soldiers; hence the new label in the title. “Day of the Soldado” is all about the soldiers on the front lines of this new frontier war. The drug war along the border has been transformed, due to an influx of bodies crossing from Mexico into the United States for more than a chance at securing asylum and a new life. The film opens with a pair of terrorist attacks executed by Middle Eastern extremists who used the Southern border as an entry point.
So, the US slaps Mexican drug cartels with the terrorist brand, allowing for more enhanced measures to remove the threats. Graver makes a pitch to his covert handler (Catherine Keener) and then the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) that aims to start a war amongst the cartels, thereby interrupting their assistance to the larger terrorist organizations of the world. To execute his plan, Graver enlists Alejandro to take part in a kidnapping scheme involving Isabel Reyes (Isabel Moner), the headstrong daughter of the kingpin who gave the order to kill Alejandro’s wife and young daughter. The goal is to make it look like a rival cartel made the move, but in Mexico, it is never easy to keep secrets or find loyal partners.
While things fall apart in spectacular fashion for Graver and Alejandro, “Day of the Soldado” offers up a secondary narrative, featuring Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), a quiet young man living on the US side of the border who serves as a coyote, a runner guiding asylum seekers across no man’s land. Hernandez is an obviously smart kid with citizenship already in hand, but he sees a way ahead for himself working in the shadows. And he’s a soldier with promise.
Sheridan and Italian director Stefano Sollima (who helmed “Gomorrah,” the serialized version of the epic crime-thriller) spare none of the action-pyrotechnics here, taking us inside gritty shootouts and the chaos of failed strikes. But the real action happens on a far more human scale. We see Alejandro embrace his past when he refuses an order from Graver to kill Isabel. Protecting the girl becomes his new mission, even though, that will ultimately lead her back to her father. This speaks to a code of honor guiding the mercurial hitman, which stands in contrast to the winds of chance and fate that inflated the sails of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the demonic hitman in Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men.”
“Sicario” seemed to want link Alejandro to Chigurh as kindred spirits, willing to do whatever it takes in the service of their masters. Alejandro has a legendary past, relayed in hushed whispers that tease the audience, whereas Chigurh is merely an evil force of nature that we merely catch in the act. There is no past or future for anyone in his path, and it would be a disservice to the character to attempt to create a backstory for him. He is the reason why there is nothing left for the old men who somehow survived the dark days.
What “Day of the Soldado” sets up, by contrast, is a look at what lies ahead for a killer like Alejandro who hasn’t completely renounced his affiliation with the human race. That glimmer of soft light and life he displays in his willingness to stand up for Isabel leads to a world of hurt, but it paves the way for the continuation of a narrative that, in the hands of Sheridan, could carve out a brand new territory where hitmen and soldiers finally earn some meaningful measure of freedom.
Rating: R; Grade: A