Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

“Leave No Trace” and “The First Purge” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” starts off with a timely event that speaks to our current societal fears. A group of Mexicans are illegally crossing the border into the United States. One of them is a Muslim extremist who blows himself up rather than be caught. We then cut to a non-descript, run of the mill department store in Kansas City filled with people. We see three suspicious-looking men enter into the store. Moments later it blows up. Putting two and two together, we extrapolate that these terrorists got into the United States through our porous southern border.

Based on the opening scenes, it looks like “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is going to go with the theme and be a “Build that wall!” the movie. It’s doesn’t. After some intel on the bombers is collected by CIA Agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), he is brought in by Department of Homeland Security official Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine). They hatch a plan to stop the smuggling of people across the border by starting a war between two drug cartels in the area. In classic government style, this will be done through a false flag operation in which they kidnap Isabel (Isabela Moner), the youngest daughter of the Reyes cartel, and make it look like the rival Matamoras cartel is behind it.

To assist in the mission, he recruits Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the “sicario” (hired killer) of the title. Gillick has a history with the Reyes cartel, who murdered his family, and he’s glad to get some pay back.

What’s remarkable about the scenes involving Isabel’s kidnapping is that they all take place in Mexico in the middle of the day. There is no concern for anonymity or privacy, such as would be provided under cover of night. Isabel is kidnapped by Gillick and his team on a busy city street as cars drive by in the background as if nothing is happening. Same goes for the scene in which they take her back. It takes place on a more isolated road, but still in broad daylight. This speaks to the lawlessness of the land. In many ways, the old wild west is still alive and well in Mexico.

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“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is well named, since “soldados” (soldiers) abound. Isabel quickly figures out that her captors are soldiers, since they are able to cross back and forth through the border checkpoint with no trouble. The Mexican government has soldiers too—but they’re less reliable since many of them are paid off by the cartels. This puts anyone messing with the cartels in a tough spot, since to mess with the cartels is to simultaneously mess with the Mexican government. The two are intertwined. There are also soldiers of sorts in a Mexican gang that takes money to help people cross the Rio Grande. One of them is Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), a young man just getting initiated into the gang. His story adds texture to the situation at the border and pays off in a major way as the action of the movie approaches its climax. What we see with this young man are the beginnings of a violent criminal life.

The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, directed by Stefano Sollima, is tight and smart. The temptation was undoubtedly there for him to try to explore all of the different aspects of people smuggling on the Mexican border. In another screenplay, we would have seen the impact illegal immigration has on the United States with a neighborhood taken over by crime, or the struggles of the non-criminal illegals in dealing with the fact that they’re separated from their families and can’t go back home. A different screenplay would have shown the heads of the cartels, their reactions to the kidnapping, and the chaos caused within and between the cartels. There is none of that here. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is laser-focused. This story is about Graver, Gillick, Isabel, and young Hernandez, and it stays that way. The movie is better off for it too, since cramming too much in would have overwhelmed the story and made for an unfocused, disjointed narrative—or a really long movie. They made the right call in not filling the movie with too much. It’s a very wise move considering that what is on screen is so thoroughly compelling. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Leave No Trace

Some movie characters just tick me off. Case in point: Will (Ben Foster), father of Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in “Leave No Trace.” It’s one thing for him to let stubbornness and pride be his major character flaw, but dragging his daughter down with him is inexcusable. He doesn’t see it that way, but that’s part of the problem. Will is so against the system and “their” rules that he’s blinded to what’s best for his daughter and what will make her happy. There are several chances throughout the movie for him to compromise and give just a little bit, but he refuses. On the one hand, I admire the strength of will it takes for a person to stand by their convictions in the face of overwhelming odds. On the other hand, if they are so short sighted that they can’t see the forest for the trees, then being pig-headed is not the best course of action to take. There’s a thin line between strong and stupid. He also sells drugs. This man is no saint.

That said, the performances by the two leads are incredible. Ben Foster is one of the most reliable character actors working today. He turns in a nicely nuanced performance as Will. We don’t get too many background details on Will, but what we do get—war veteran, wife passed away—do little to explain how he came to be so disgusted by society that he chose to live in the woods in a public park in Portland, Oregon. He took his daughter with him after he made this decision, and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie turns in a well-balanced performance as a young girl struggling between her love for her father, her curiosity about “their” society and what she is missing, and dealing with her blossoming womanhood and interest in boys.

As a character study, “Leave No Trace” is an amazing movie with solid performances and good direction by Debra Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay. The movie industry could do with coming out with more of these types of movies every year. However, that is more easily said than done, since these movies require subtlety, which is not Hollywood’s strong suit. If there is anything wrong with the movie, it’s the lead character, who time and time again is given the opportunity to make a decision that would be good for him and his daughter, but fails—to the point of landing them in some perilous situations. It’s frustrating to watch. However, I have the ability to not like a main character but still like a movie for all of its good qualities. “Leave No Trace” is one of those movies. Rent it.

The First Purge

“The First Purge” opens with events that are not timely and do not speak to our current economic climate. The movie starts off with faux news reports about the stock market going down, unemployment going up, and the economy collapsing—literally the polar opposite of what is happening now. From this turmoil rises a third political party called the New Founding Fathers, who promise to turn things around. Is their idea to cut spending and lower taxes to spark economic growth? If it was, this wouldn’t be a “Purge” movie. Their idea is to have one night a year where all crime is legal in the hopes of thinning out the lower classes, who are a tax burden on society.

This basically beats the same drum as the previous installment, “The Purge: Election Year,” about how the lower classes can’t afford the anti-home invasion equipment we see in the first movie from 2013, and are therefore more susceptible to the violence committed that night. However, this is the prequel no one asked for, showing how the “Purge” started off as an experiment on Staten Island and residents were coerced into participating with the promise of cash payouts.

The one interesting glimpse we get into the early workings of the “Purge” are from the ones starting it. There is the architect of the experiment, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), a behavioral psychologist very interested in the clinical analysis to be derived from how people act during the experiment. There is also Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), the stereotypical weasely politician who is willing to cheat and manipulate to get the results he wants.

I actually could have used more scenes with them and fewer scenes on the street during the experiment (it’s not called the “Purge” quite yet, though the name is tossed around). Those scenes offer nothing more than the standard fare as crazies in costumes battle it out and our heroes Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) do what they need to do in order to survive the night. Seeing the behind the scenes, as it were, with the cameras monitoring the goings on in the streets and the news reports, was at least fresh and interesting. But there is too little and it is too short lived as the monitoring station is abandoned in favor of a relentlessly violent final half hour that is completely mind-numbing. I can’t say that this movie is a total waste of time, especially for fans of “The Purge” movies who will enjoy it for giving them more of the same. I, however, wanted more. I got it—but in far too little of a dose. Stream it.

More New Releases: “Tales From The Hood 2,” horror is back in the hood in this anthology movie of horror stories, starring Keith David.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.