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Whenever a sequel gets made, one of the first questions that some fans inevitably ask is whether or not the sequel even needed to happen in the first place. That question became even more pronounced when it was revealed that Denis Villeneuve's Sicario (a nasty, decidedly non-franchise film) would actually get the franchise treatment. Fans of the original have wondered if Sicario: Day of the Soldado could live up to the brutal legacy of the original, and save for a few narrative pitfalls, we're pleased to announce that Stefano Sollima's follow-up has largely succeeded in deepening this world, while expanding on its characters.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado picks up an unspecified amount of time after (or maybe it's before, we really don't know), Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) had their last encounter with Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). After a major terrorist attack on United States soil is traced to Mexico, the deadly duo is dispatched south of the border by the government to start a war with the biggest cartel in the region and splinter the criminal underworld in the process. However, when the daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel boss becomes a disposable witness, Matt and Alexandro find themselves at odds over whether or not to follow orders and tie off the loose end.

First things first, it needs to be said that Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a great movie that doesn't even feel like a sequel in many respects. It gets audiences up-to-speed quickly, and while knowledge of Matt and Alejandro's relationship from the first movie helps expedite that process, the arcs in the film work incredibly well -- which is a testament to the lead performances, the strength of the writing, and Stefano Sollima's ability to helm realistic action.

That said, are two specific elements of Sicario: Day of the Soldado that make it an inferior movie when compared to its predecessor, and they both have to do with creatives who did not return for the sequel. Specifically, I'm referring to the absence of cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who passed away earlier this year. In terms of cinematography, Sicario: Day of the Soldado by no means looks bad, but Dariusz Wolski's landscapes just aren't as sharp or immersive as the terrifyingly-desolate world created by Deakins. That's a high bar to cross, for anyone.

Then there's the music, which definitely makes attempts to honor the work done by Jóhann Jóhannsson in Sicario, but doesn't achieve anything nearly as memorable. In fact, the film eventually does include some specific cues from Jóhannsson's work on the first installment in this franchise, and it serves as a stark reminder of how much better the original score was. Again, this doesn't mean that the work done by Hildur Guðnadóttir is bad; it merely shows that Sicario: Day of the Soldado has downgraded in a few key areas.

That said, the areas that have remained consistent from the first movie are the areas that thrive. Bringing Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro back for enhanced roles as Matt Graver and Alejandro is a stroke of genius, as both actors explore their newfound space in exciting ways and find new dimensions to their characters. Emily Blunt's Kate Macer was our way into this world in the first movie, and while there were some fan concerns over whether we could get as invested in a story focusing on Matt and Alejandro, Day of the Soldado's impeccable lead performances (Isabela Moner is also incredible as a newcomer to the ensemble) help add new layers of complexity to the world.

Then there's screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who continues to show that he's one of the most capable and talented screenwriters in the game right now. Once again embracing his knack for blending neo-western ideas with current political ideas, Sheridan's story is nuanced and layered in a way that glosses over some of the inherent machismo in Matt and Alejandro's personas. Without getting too bogged down in its own message, the movie actively acknowledges a political environment that feels VERY 2018, and it provides an even more unflinching look at the drug cartel world than anything seen in the first Sicario.

Some narrative threads don't work, and some eventually lead to dead ends. In fact, the first two acts set up a much bigger story than we ultimately get, with the movie seemingly changing gears at the last second to tell a smaller and more personal tale. However, the bulk of Sicario: Day of the Soldado's 'A' plot is a satisfying continuation of the two characters introduced in the previous film, and leaves them in a spot where we want to know what will happen. It's not that the film necessarily ends on a vague cliffhanger, but the door that it opens in its final minutes stands out as an enticing one that absolutely demands that Sicario 3 happen.

In true sequel fashion, Sicario: Day of the Soldado ups the ante in terms of scale this time around. This enhancement of scope does sometimes come at the cost of the darkly intimate charm of the original film, but in its place, we get a movie with big, bold, and smart action sequences. One that stands out is a long take firefight scene depicted entirely from the inside of a crashed humvee. Not showing the entirety of a showstopper moment like that could seem like a gamble, but Stefano Sollima's deft hand helps keep things moving and provides us with a solid sense of geography that carries the action forward. It's moments like these that remind us that a fair amount of thought went into this sequel, and it's clearly not a cheap cash grab designed to profit off of the Sicario name.

Though not quite as masterful as the film that preceded it, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a damn-fine sequel that honors the narrative work done by Denis Villeneuve in the first film and allows Taylor Sheridan to build on an already fascinating world. Stefano Sollima's direction of the film's tactical elements are more than competent (which bodes quite well for the Call of Duty adaptation that he's currently involved with), and the result is an engaging thriller that lacks some of the atmospheric charms of the original, but succeeds in keeping audiences invested in the Sicario world. This is the land of wolves, and they are as vicious as ever.

7 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five

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