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.