Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a nightmare. There’s bloody violence, growled dialogue, inky visuals—and in this world Mexican drug cartels, Somali pirate kings, and ISIS have essentially combined forces to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S. The film, a sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 border thriller Sicario, uses this ugly scenario as a flimsy excuse for a bunch of grim set-pieces, where CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his steely assassin partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) try to lay waste to the cartels. “No rules this time,” Matt snarls at Alejandro, like he’s making a nasty promise to the audience. Perhaps—but there’s not much of a point this time, either.
The first Sicario, written by Taylor Sheridan, had a cynical view of the war on drugs. It focused on an FBI agent (played by Emily Blunt) working with Graver and Gillick, who eventually realized the duo didn’t seek to solve any of Mexico’s organized-crime problems, but rather wanted to centralize them into one more stable cartel. The film capitalized on easy stereotypes about life on the border but at least made sure to portray America’s complicity and uselessness.
It was also an impressive piece of filmmaking, shot with moody starkness by Roger Deakins and given an atonal, rumbling score by the late, great composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Though Day of the Soldado was also written by Sheridan, almost everything else that made its predecessor work is missing—no Blunt, no Deakins, no Jóhannsson, and certainly no Villeneuve (who went on to make Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 in quick succession). Instead, Day of the Soldado is helmed by Stefano Sollima (the director of Italian noir like 2015’s Suburra), who approaches it like a straightforward gangster movie.
That doesn’t mix well with Sheridan’s queasy script. Early imagery of suicide bombers detonating their vests during a border crossing and at a Kansas City supermarket is incredibly charged stuff for a film that has no real political message. Sheridan is simply jabbing at the hot-button topics of the moment to spur his story along. His past screenplays have reckoned with various ongoing crises in America with mixed results: There was the terrific recession-themed bank-robber thriller Hell or High Water, and the extremely flawed Wind River, a murder mystery set on an Indian reservation. Day of the Soldado is his clumsiest effort yet.
The plot, such as it is, sees the American government emboldened to take action within Mexico after the attack in Kansas City. Graver’s move is to foster a cartel civil war by kidnapping Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a kingpin, and pretending she was taken by a rival gang. He enlists Gillick in his plot, and things go smoothly for a while until they don’t, but it’s hard to care either way—the entire enterprise feels bogus from the start because of its horrifying amorality.
Without Blunt’s character on hand to serve as an audience surrogate, the film’s sympathies instead shift to Gillick, a cold-blooded murderer with a longstanding personal vendetta against the cartels. Del Toro is one of the best actors working in Hollywood (he has been for more than two decades), and he does his best to turn Sheridan’s hackneyed drivel into something resembling pathos. But the more he manages to make Gillick seem like a person, the less Day of the Soldado makes sense. No one with any shred of humanity would carry out such a ludicrous plan; Brolin, perhaps realizing this, plays Graver with all the gravitas of a malfunctioning robot.
When Graver’s plan is working, it’s too morally objectionable to root for; when it deteriorates, it becomes both morally objectionable and stupid. While Villeneuve’s Sicario was saved by its fantastic set-pieces (a slow-motion shootout amid a sea of Humvees was a particular standout), the action in Day of the Soldado is muddy and slow, the stakes entirely absent throughout. It’d be offensive enough if the sequel were flat-out cartoonish, but the film seems utterly convinced of its own verisimilitude—a delusion that doesn’t deserve to be indulged at such a sensitive political moment. This is a movie that only proposes violence, coercion, and drone strikes as the solution to its conflicts, while treating the U.S.–Mexico border as some kind of lawless lost cause. Day of the Soldado would be hard to stomach at any time. It feels particularly worthless now.