Sicario: Day of the Soldado is arguably the least-anticipated major sequel of the summer. That's not a slam on the original Sicario, just simple math. New installments in the Jurassic Park, Avengers, X-Men, Mission: Impossible, and Incredibles franchises are following up smash hits, while Sicario 2 is following up a sleeper success about the drug trade that received strong reviews and a few technical Oscar nominations. Though both Sicario movies are nominally thrillers, the first one isn't the kind of action or adventure movie that typically generates a sequel.
Is this how studios must smuggle adult drama across the summer-movie border?
Sequels to serious-minded dramas or thrillers aren't unprecedented, of course; The Godfather Part II trailed its predecessor by just two years and won a Best Picture Oscar. More common is the Sylvester Stallone path: Early in his career, Stallone would make a small-scale sports movie like Rocky or a gritty, character-driven thriller like First Blood, and then, with sequels, turn Rocky Balboa and John Rambo into heroes of schlock. Eventually, Stallone swung the Rocky series back toward drama with movies like Rocky Balboa and Creed, pointing to another drama-sequel option that has sometimes paid rich dividends, creatively and financially: nostalgic reconsiderations of characters years after their debut.
But Sicario came out just a few years ago, so that more elegiac option is off the table. As far as contemporary cash-ins go, Day of the Soldado isn't quite as shameless as Rocky II or Rambo III, but it's closer to those than to the lofty heights of Godfather II. This is not a sequel that really builds upon the original. By dropping Kate, Emily Blunt's FBI agent from the first film, and focusing on stoic Department of Justice consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his shadowy assassin-partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), Soldado goes wider in scope, but not deeper. There's more cross-cutting, more big story developments (including a terrorist attack), more contact with an unseen president. It plays with a very sequel-like conception of more: more drama without more insight.
New director Stefano Sollima, subbing in for Denis Villeneuve, maintains the procedural tone of the first movie, but without a ground-level view of the drug war's futility, the material loses its eerie dread, its personality. In the first movie, Kate is dropped into an assignment that seems lofty but quickly turns knotty and compromised. Here, Graver recruits Alejandro for a mission to start a war between two drug cartels, in the aftermath of a recent terrorist attack. (The attack is filmed with a lingering sense of what Sollima clearly considers stark, unflinching realism, but feels more like aggressive button-pushing.) Graver butts heads with his superiors, Alejandro comes to feel protective of a young girl who is a pawn in their plan, and a separate story tracks a young Mexican-American kid who works to sneak people over the border.
With so much real-life drama taking place at the U.S.-Mexico border, Soldado seems timely, especially with its new focus on the whims of politicians. Yet the sequel allows its timeliness to replace characterization, especially of its younger new characters. Graver and Alejandro don't reveal new layers with additional screentime; their points of view are recycled from other thrillers. But if making a sequel to Sicario turns distinctive material into another stylish potboiler with an elevated sense of purpose, Sicario 2 at least elevates the craft, especially with the rich blues of Dariusz Wolski's cinematography. On a technical level, the movie is careful and precise.
These qualities may wind up standing out because of the upcoming release schedule. There are nine wide-release movies that follow Soldado into theaters throughout July, and the only one that isn't a franchise title stars The Rock (something of a one-man franchise himself, even when he's not appearing in sequels). That makes Day of the Soldado the season's token adult drama, which turns out to be both its blessing and its curse. The movie's brand name allows it a spot that would typically go to something bigger and noisier. But it also subsumes much of what was great about Sicario into the franchise machine, to the point where this adult drama ends with a sequel tease of its own.
During the teaser, the score works overtime to convey menace. But the real dread comes from the suspicion that Sicario won't be the last good grown-up movie to be retrofitted into an increasingly childish formula.