Sicario: Day of the Soldado

In my review for 2015's Sicario, I noted that Emily Blunt's priggish FBI agent was a weak center in a story about CIA involvement in the drug war, and that the film's ultimate star, Benicio del Toro, deserved a movie of his own. Three years later, the awkwardly-titled Sicario: Day of the Soldado grants my wish. And the results are mostly, but not entirely, satisfying.

Aside from del Toro and Sicario costar Josh Brolin – Blunt is nowhere to be found – the sequel's MVP is returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who has mastered the art of the contemporary thriller. For their part, director Sollima and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski are certainly capable, but they lack the artistry that Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins brought to the first film, which elevated it above your average action picture.

With no Emily Blunt character to serve as a moral compass, del Toro and Brolin find themselves recast as the good guys, as the first film's ethical gray areas are replaced by "save the girl" and "he's my friend" sentiments that don't quite feel true to the cold-hearted men we met in Sicario. The US government doesn't get off any easier, however: the plot this time is kicked off by an act of Islamic terrorism in Kansas City, where the terrorists' apparent connection to Mexico's border smuggling trade has inspired the Department of Defense to unleash their CIA attack dogs south of the border.

The government's scheme, which is to ignite a war between the Mexican cartels, quickly goes awry, and del Toro and Brolin find themselves at an impasse. To reveal any more would be to go deep into the plot (which the trailer does enough of already), but suffice to say that Soldado tops Sicario's bullet count by a significant margin, for better or worse – although interestingly, the film is primarily front-loaded with violence, taking a more reflective tone as the story unfolds.

Whether it's true or not, the third act definitely feels as though Sheridan was told to rewrite it in order to justify yet more sequels. Wags have stated that Soldado is to Sicario what Rambo was to First Blood, taking a serious drama and reducing it to action hero cliches. I wouldn't go that far – Soldado still has things on its mind beyond gunfire – but its conclusion does feel like a franchise setup, and thus a sellout. Otherwise, it's a solid thriller that delivers the goods. And topping Sicario was probably an impossible task anyway.