The opening moments of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” have an aggressive, almost swaggering topicality. A group of migrants is apprehended trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. Several men stride into a Kansas City store and blow themselves up, one of them — in a ghoulishly exploitative touch — pausing to mutter a prayer in Arabic and savor the dread of a woman and her young daughter. Thousands of miles away, a Somali prisoner undergoes some exquisitely state-of-the-art torture, forced to watch a drone-camera feed as bombs drop on his family members, one by one.
His torturer is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), whom you may recall as the cocksure CIA tough from the first “Sicario.” That 2015 thriller, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed with hypnotic verve by Denis Villeneuve, was a scary, serpentine plunge into the darkness and amorality of the Mexican drug trade. Its most troubling revelation, as seen through the eyes of a tough but idealistic FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, wasn’t that the war on drugs was unwinnable. It was that you couldn’t even fight it and still maintain a clean conscience.
Sheridan has returned for sequel scripting duties, but Blunt’s character has now vanished, and with her any sense of wide-eyed moral indignation. No one left on this lawless landscape still harbors any delusions of doing the right thing. If Villeneuve’s film wended its way toward a denouement of honestly earned horror, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” cops a coldly cynical attitude from the outset.
The trouble with this muscular, fitfully absorbing, confusingly titled action movie — a bigger, brasher and less memorable picture than its predecessor in every respect — is that its cynicism too often feels like a put-on. As directed by Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, best known for his work on the mob TV series “Gomorrah,” it misses no opportunity to signal its own relevance.
“No rules this time,” Matt declares, ill-advisedly quoting the one-sheet. If there were rules the last time, I can’t remember what they were. Still, Matt’s meaning is clear enough. The Mexican drug cartels, no longer content to send narcotics across the border, are now in the more lucrative business of human trafficking, and U.S. tactics on the ground have shifted in response.
The Department of Defense has ordered Matt and his allies, both old (Jeffrey Donovan) and new (an underused Catherine Keener), to start a war among the major cartels — a job that will require calculation and finesse, but also a certain foolhardy audacity.
Where Matt and his team once quietly burrowed underground to combat a lethal threat, they now cause chaos in broad daylight. In the most memorable or at least marketing-friendly scene, an assassin strides up to his target on a major Mexico City street, cavalierly removes his mask and opens fire.
The extraordinary face behind that mask belongs to Benicio Del Toro, reprising his role as the grave, haunted Alejandro Gillick, a waster of few words and even fewer bullets. Once more Alejandro moves through the action with quietly lethal purpose, each killing bringing him one step closer to avenging his family’s deaths at the hands of the ruthless kingpin Carlos Reyes.
There’s a cruel symmetry to the fact that Matt’s plan involves kidnapping Reyes’ 14-year-old daughter, Isabel (an excellent Isabela Moner), transporting her across the border into Texas and framing a rival cartel for the deed. Naturally, it takes no time for the scheme to go violently awry, forcing the U.S. government to disavow the entire operation and stranding Matt and his team in a perilous state of limbo.
The corruption and endangerment of a younger generation is a structuring theme of the story, which occasionally cuts away to the initially unrelated subplot of a Mexican American teenager, Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez, frighteningly composed), whom a cartel recruits for some low-level trafficking work. Miguel lives in a Texas town just north of the Rio Grande, and the movie’s most haunting image shows the border fence just behind his house — an eerie yet weirdly arbitrary divider between two countries whose fortunes have always been grimly entwined.
It gives away nothing to note that these two stories will eventually collide, a harrowing development that is held back for maximum dramatic impact. But the intended effect of this twist — to reveal the vast scope of both the drug trade and the migrant crisis, and the complexity of their interlocking parts — winds up backfiring, exposing the film’s narrative limitations and its pretense to an all-knowing point of view. What should seem like a clarifying moment of truth, of startling geopolitical insight, feels instead like a screenwriter’s skillful contrivance.
To his credit, Sheridan, a leading exponent of contemporary crime stories and westerns in recent American movies, is not interested in producing a documentary on his chosen milieu. The lives that he has chosen to depict in his socially conscious thrillers — struggling working-class Texans in “Hell or High Water,” embattled Native Americans on a Wyoming reservation in “Wind River” — are invariably inflected with the trappings of genre and the exaggerations of larger-than-life storytelling. But because of the currency and specificity of its chosen subject matter, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” winds up feeling uniquely miscalculated, even dated, at least for viewers who have kept up with recent headlines.
It’s not that the filmmakers should have anticipated, say, the emergence of a zero-tolerance crackdown on immigration, though there is at least one thread here that would have played out rather differently with that border policy in effect. Apart from the grotesque irresponsibility of treating the threat of terrorism like a red herring, what makes the movie feel so politically toothless is its bizarre combination of arrogance and naivete, its occasional glimpses of an alternate reality that, for all its violence and brutality, seems almost preferable to our own. (A U.S. president who steers clear of human-rights violations for fear of impeachment? How quaint.)
The movie’s saving grace and its biggest paradox may be Alejandro, the character in whom Del Toro’s finest instincts and the script’s most credulity-straining elements converge. You may wonder what change of heart spurs Alejandro’s mission to escort the traumatized Isabel back to her Mexico City home; as the first “Sicario” made clear, this is a man who proved more than willing to slaughter innocent children in cold blood.
But you almost go along with it anyway, in part because Del Toro’s hushed, gestural performance (he even knows sign language!) is so seductive, and also because the attempt to reverse-engineer Alejandro into an action-franchise star is as hard to resist as it is preposterous. A third “Sicario” almost certainly lies ahead, and why not? No less than the international drug trade, big-budget filmmaking follows its own ruthless logic of supply and demand.
‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’
Rated: R, for strong violence, bloody images and language
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In general release