WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Sicario: Day of the Soldado, in theaters now.
Denis Villeneuve's 2015 crime thriller Sicario was a brutal yet honest depiction of the war against a Colombian drug cartel at the Mexico-United States border. Three years later, Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima picks up the narrative in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. While Villenueve teased the vendetta of hitman Alejandro Gillick's (Benicio del Toro), working for the U.S. Defense Department to take down a criminal empire, the follow-up deviates far from the topic of the militarization of police, and cuts loose the character in his crusade against Mexico's drug lords.
The thing is, though, Soldado (which means "soldier" in English) plays out like a standalone film, with little indication of where it falls chronologically in relation to Sicario. But upon close inspection, there are a couple subtle plot points that indicate whether these events come before or after the 2015 film, while also cleverly setting up the franchise's future.
Writer Taylor Sheridan, who scripted both films, didn't specify when Soldado occurs, because he wanted the audience to immerse itself in the characters, not the crime-ridden universe. “You have no idea if it’s before or after [the events of Sicario], if it’s five years—you have no clue," he told Screen Rant last year. "There is no reference at all to the first Sicario, so you don’t know when it happens … Sicario, the world isn’t that specific. It’s just these characters. And frankly we wanted audiences to experience the characters in real-time rather than having an exposition dump saying, ’Meanwhile in Sicario’…”
The reason for that comes to light in the second half of Soldado. These details were kept secret to disguise the surprising path Alejandro takes to avenge family's death, especially as he finally realizes he may have been creating monsters like the men he hated. More so, he seems to understand the U.S. government he works for may also be part of the problem.
Soldado reveals Alejandro was created and manipulated by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to use as a weapon against rival Mexican cartels, the Matamoro and Reyes families. With drug lords now officially classified as terrorists, the U.S. Defense Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) and his right-hand woman, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), enlist both men to kidnap young Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner) and frame the Matamoros family, pushing both cartels to war.