Believe it or not, Ocean's 8 and Sicario: Day of the Soldado have something in common. They are both relatively solid, competent and compelling films on their own terms, which suffer needlessly by insisting on tying themselves to earlier, far superior work.
I keep thinking of one of the few lines in Day of the Soldado that really stuck with me. When Josh Brolin's CIA agent Matt Graver says, "Doesn't change anything," Catherine Keener's Cynthia Foards from the Department of Defense replies, "It changes the fucking narrative!"
Indeed, changing the fucking narrative is something Day of the Soldado does in multiple ways -- some not quite to its benefit, such as the broader implications of the narrative in its own film series.
And then there's its political and social context within the real world. As far as I'm concerned, Day of the Saldado begins with a misstep. These movies are supposed to be about the unrelentingly messy nature of Mexican drug cartels and how they affect life at the border, yet for some reason director Stefano Sollima and writer Taylor Sheridan kick things off with suicide bombers at the border who are not necessarily Mexican, but more importantly, Muslim. Prayer rugs left behind at the scene of a bombing. Another set of suicide bombers inside a grocery store in Kansas City.
So, not only does this movie conflate Mexican drug criminals and radical Muslim terrorists, but plenty of conservatives are going to see this movie as a grand advertisement for the president's border wall. Day of the Soldado doesn't bother to offer the well-worn statistics showing that more Mexicans are actually leaving the U.S. than entering it -- why? Because it changes the fucking narrative.
To be fair, it's also well known that Mexican drug cartels are an enduring and lethally dangerous problem. And when it comes to those suicide bombers, most of them are later revealed to have been not from some Middle Eastern country, but from New Jersey. That's not so much a spoiler as vital information that too many in this film's audience -- having been marketed to as though this is a cool action flick rather than a contemplation of thorny moral issues -- are likely to glean over. In that sense, Day of the Soldado is too nuanced for its own good.
It's entirely possible I'm not giving this film's audience enough credit. I'm open to that possibility. Either way, the fucking narrative is still changed. Frankly, I feel bad for some of the nonwhite actors in this movie, who just want an acting career and are forced yet again to utter the lines "Allahu Akbar!" before blowing themselves up. I suppose the same could be said of countless Mexican characters reduced to drug criminals, but at least they are given some comparative humanity and gravitas here.
In 2015, the original Sicario was a far superior film, one of the year's very best -- if not for Inside Out having been released the same year, I would have said it was the very best. Director Denis Villeneuve had a stunning visual flair that Stefano Sollima here lacks, although he hints at it with clear attempts at replication. The tense musical score is similar, and similarly effective. Perhaps most curiously, Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote a masterful script for Hell or High Water in 2016, wrote both of these movies. What that really means is . . . Taylor Sheridan is better than this.
Because although Day of the Soldado is far less contrived than most movies -- and that honestly makes it still a better bet than most other movies in theatres right now -- it's far more contrived than its nearly flawless predecessor, and of Sheridan's other work. Sicario was a clear commentary on a woman navigating spaces run with testosterone on overdrive, with the great Emily Blunt absent, we're just left with more of that testosterone.
We also, however, get more of Benicio Del Toro's Alejandro -- he being the Sicario ("Hitman") of both titles. Del Toro can always be relied upon to elevate material, and to mesmerize with even understated performance. He's even well matched with Isabela Moner as Isanel Reyes, the young teen daughter of a Mexican cartel leader. The CIA orchestrates her kidnapping in an attempt to pit a war between cartels, and her time with Alejandro reveals a capacity for empathy in him that the previous film never betrayed.
Then, by the very end, Sheridan's script is nearly shocking in how it veers into the genuinely hokey with its final lines, and some genuine disappointment sets it. It's a disappointment only in context, though: Day of the Soldado has much to redeem it, including battle sequences well enough choreographed and orchestrated to rival those of the original Sicario. It offers plenty of its own provocative food for thought, if you're looking to dig deep enough for it. This is the kind of movie that should force such contemplation on its audience, though, instead of giving it an option to be let off the hook and just be "entertained." We have movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom for that nonsense.