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Front Page - Friday, July 6, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘Day of the Soldado’ script heads south in a hurry

I wish we lived in a world in which people didn’t do the things they do to each other in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado .” Think about what the world would be like if men didn’t come up with so many reasons to kill each other.

I also wish “Soldado” was as good as its predecessor. Written by Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water,” “Wind River”) and directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Blade Runner 2049”), “Sicario” (2015) was a brilliant action thriller that examined how the United States’ war on drugs was turning us into the monsters we were trying to defeat.

Although Sheridan returned as the writer of “Soldado,” the sequel is not brilliant in any way. It is an absorbing thrill ride, but only to a point.

Returning in their roles from “Sicario” are Josh Brolin as CIA agent Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro as hitman Alejandro Gillick. Missing is Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer. Without Macer’s conscious, there’s no filter for judging Graver and Gillick’s brutal approach to handling problems; “Soldado” simply spills a lot of blood without blinking twice.

“Soldado” opens with a jolt as suicide bombers enter a Kansas City grocery store and detonate their payloads, killing over a dozen people. In response, the U.S. government gives Graver a loose rein to combat the Mexican drug cartels, which some officials believe smuggled the terrorists across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Graver and the secretary of defense decide the best approach is to start a war between the drug cartels. Maybe the film’s logic is faulty, or maybe I just didn’t follow it, but as solutions go, this seemed like a bit of a reach.

Regardless, it gives Graver an excuse to recruit Gillick, who kills the high-profile lawyer of one of the large cartels. Next, Graver and his team kidnap the daughter of the head of a rival cartel.

A scene that takes place after the kidnapping illustrates the “glass half full” mentality viewers need to take while watching “Soldado.”

While escorting Graver and his team back to the U.S. border, Mexican federal police inexplicably open fire on their convoy. As Graver and his crew try to figure out how to defend themselves before the bulletproof glass that’s protecting them shatters under the hail of gunfire, missiles come out of nowhere and take out two of the other vehicles. The sound work in this scene is phenomenal and truly puts viewers in Graver’s vehicle.

The sequence is very well made, but I kept wondering why the Mexican police would attack the Americans. Maybe one of the drug cartels caught wind of what was going on and paid the police to take out Graver and his men. Maybe they had another motive. If Sheridan had a reason beyond moving the plot forward, he buried it in the debris kicked up by the explosions.

Questions like this plagued me throughout the film, which is something I’ve never experienced while watching a movie based on one of Sheridan’s screenplays. When that man sits down at a keyboard, magic pours through his fingertips.

From building complex characters to developing thematically-powered narratives, there’s nothing he hasn’t mastered as a writer. But with “Soldado,” he stumbles.

Sheridan’s biggest offense with “Soldado” is hinging an important turning point on an unlikely coincidence. I won’t reveal what it is, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s a rare, cheap cheat for Sheridan and one that irretrievably took me out of the movie.

That leaves me with one last gripe – the ending.

Or rather, the lack of one. “Soldado” fades to black just as it seems the climax of the film should be kicking in.

There’s a decent argument to be made that “Soldado” ends precisely where it should. The drug war has been raging for decades and it’s not going to end any time soon. Hell, it might never end.

If Sheridan was making that point, OK. But there are loose ends he needed to tie up. So, I think the better argument is that he wrote himself into a corner and bailed.

That’s harsh criticism for someone of Sheridan’s caliber. But I can see only two other options: either the studio cut the budget and settled for an ending that doesn’t resolve anything, or the filmmakers are baiting audiences for another sequel.

That’s too bad because “Soldado” is peppered with powerful moments, such as the assault on Graver and his team and a touching scene between Gillick and a deaf Mexican who provides him with sanctuary.

“Soldado” didn’t need to be brilliant. Few films are. But I wish it had at least been good.