TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The 2015 action thriller "Sicario," starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent, delved into the moral ambiguities of the U.S. government's war with the Mexican drug trade. Blunt doesn't appear in the sequel "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado," but Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles as two men working for the CIA to fight the cartels. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A movie that opens with American soldiers cracking down on migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border may be no one's idea of escapist entertainment these days. But then, "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado" never misses the chance to telegraph its own relevance. In this swaggeringly topical sequel to the more elegantly unnerving "Sicario," the war on drugs has gone from bad to worse. The Mexican cartels, no longer content just to send narcotics across the border, have expanded into the more lucrative business of human trafficking. The U.S. Defense Department suspects the cartels of smuggling terrorists onto American soil and decides there is only one solution, to fight one war by secretly starting another.
If you saw the first "Sicario," you'll recognize some of the key players here. Josh Brolin is back as Matt Graver, the cocky CIA man gleefully operating by his own playbook. Benicio Del Toro also returns as Matt's associate Alejandro Gillick, a grave haunted assassin motivated solely by the desire to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter who were murdered by a cartel boss years earlier. The most glaring absence is that of Emily Blunt, whose FBI agent served as a wide-eyed audience surrogate in the first film. This time, there's no pretense to moral indignation. As Matt tells Alejandro, the rules of engagement have gone out the window.
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JOSH BROLIN: (As Matt Graver) No rules this time. I'm turning you loose.
BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Alejandro) How loose?
BROLIN: (As Matt Graver) Carlos Reyes. How's that for loose? It's your chance to get even for your family. You are going to help us start a war.
DEL TORO: (As Alejandro) With who?
BROLIN: (As Matt Graver) Everyone.
CHANG: Their plan is to kidnap Isabel Reyes, the teenage daughter of the notorious kingpin Carlos Reyes, and frame a rival organization, triggering the sort of bloody internecine warfare that will keep the cartels from operating effectively. Naturally, the abduction plot goes violently awry. And before long, the U.S. government is forced to disavow the whole mission, leaving Matt and his fractured team in a perilous state of limbo.
Much of the story follows Alejandro as he tries to return the terrified young Isabel, played by the excellent Isabela Moner, to her home in Mexico City. It's a surprising act of conscience from someone who, as we saw in the previous film, had no trouble slaughtering innocent children in cold blood. The sicario, or hitman, has suddenly become a soldado, or soldier. But Del Toro sells Alejandro's attack of integrity the same way he sells everything - with a grimly persuasive stare and as few words as possible. Isabel isn't the only teenager caught up in the mayhem.
A parallel subplot follows a 14-year-old Mexican-American named Miguel Hernandez, played with eerie composure by Elijah Rodriguez, who was recruited by a cartel for some low-level smuggling work. His story will ultimately dovetail with that of Alejandro and Isabel in one of two big twists that strain plausibility to the breaking point. With his scripts for "Hell Or High Water," "Wind River" and the first "Sicario," the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has become American cinema's crime fiction specialist of the moment. But the seams in his storytelling are starting to show, and his knack for merging genre thrills and geopolitical commentary is wearing a little thin. The story doesn't engage the issues that it raises so much as bend them into an elaborate narrative pretzel.
As directed by Stefano Sollima, best known for the Italian mob series "Gomorrah," "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado" moves along at an absorbing clip and features a few gripping action sequences but sustained intimate tension seems beyond its abilities. The first movie, as directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot with scorching brilliance by Roger Deakins, may have been an art film in B-movie drag, but it also had a distinctive undertow of menace that's nowhere in evidence here. Everything about "Sicario: Day Of The Soldado" feels bigger and brasher. And what it gains in scale, it loses and precision.
The nods to terrorism, the refugee crisis and the bureaucratic logjam of U.S. politics feel opportunistic, even exploitative. And I don't entirely buy the attempt to reverse engineer Del Toro, compelling as he is, into the star of his own action franchise, one that will likely continue with a third "Sicario" down the line. After all, the international drug trade isn't the only business that follows the ruthless logic of supply and demand.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jonathan Blitzer, who covers immigration for The New Yorker and his reporting from El Paso, where he's spoken to women in detention who were separated from their children at the border. We'll talk about the immigration crisis, the one he says has been created by the Trump administration. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.