One of the least likely sequels since “Weekend at Bernie’s 2,” “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” seems engineered for maximum confusion.
Not to the extent of, say, the second season of HBO’s “Westworld.” But you absolutely must pay careful attention. Even then, some of the plot developments may not add up in this murky examination of greed and violence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Released in 2015, “Sicario” was a cynical look at how the CIA was willing to co-opt and endanger an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) so the rules-be-damned Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) could mete out justice under the cover of the domestic intelligence agency.
As the quietly menacing attorney-turned-assassin, Del Toro delivered one of that year’s most overlooked performances. “Sicario” was the first film from writer Taylor Sheridan, who would go on to script two of my other recent favorites, “Wind River” and the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water.” And it skillfully paired director Denis Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049”) with legendary Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins to lend style to the movie’s substance. Still, the drama earned a mere $85 million worldwide on a reported $30 million budget.
Only Del Toro, Brolin and Sheridan return for “Day of the Soldado,” which even switched studios from Lionsgate to Sony. Of the three, Sheridan, who’s become a master of the contemporary Western, seems a bit distracted, which makes the sequel feel simultaneously more straightforward yet somehow more muddled.
This time out, the president is about to label Mexican cartels as terror groups, so the secretary of defense (Matthew Modine) calls upon Brolin’s Matt to work his special brand of chaos and ramp up the violence among the cartels.
His plan is to kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner, “Transformers: The Last Knight”), the daughter of the cartel boss who ordered the murder of Alejandro’s family, take her to Texas, then turn around and “rescue” her and blame one of Reyes’ rivals. Of course, Matt calls upon his old friend Alejandro to help.
Shockingly, the mission doesn’t go as planned, and the deputy CIA director (Catherine Keener) orders the mess cleaned up. Permanently.
Directed by Stefano Sollima (the Italian TV crime drama “Gomorrah”), “Day of the Soldado” once again demonstrates the lengths to which its leads will go to perform jobs few others would even consider. Theirs is a profession with barely any rules and even fewer morals. The strain that places on Matt and Alejandro is beginning to shine through thanks to the fine performances by Brolin and Del Toro.
For the first time, though, “Day of the Soldado” also shows some pretty visible cracks in Sheridan’s storytelling.
Isabela becomes a liability because she’s seen American forces killing Mexicans inside Mexico during the unauthorized mission to bring her home. Yet the attempted cover-up involves the very public use of two military helicopters in broad daylight.
Also, without spoiling much, a key plot point involves Alejandro being recognized by someone he encountered only briefly — despite their reunion being in the dark, at a distance, while Alejandro is wearing a disguise. There’s zero chance that, under those same conditions, I could see the actual Benicio Del Toro and think, “Wait a minute. Is that Benicio Del Toro?” And I’ve spent more than 20 years staring at him on movie screens.
There are a few other inconsistencies, along with some fairly remarkable leaps of logic and suspensions of disbelief.
But the biggest question may be, what is a taut, tense thriller such as “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” doing in the middle of summer, when it’s clearly more of a sophisticated September release for grown folks?
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.
Movie: “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”
Running time: 122 minutes
Rating: R; strong violence, bloody images, and language
Now playing: At multiple locations