‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ review: Thriller sequel ill-timed and devoid of meaningful storytelling

Try and imagine the movie we need right now, amid a moment of great national turmoil, in which haunting, once-unfathomable …

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’

Directed by Stefano Sollima

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner

Rated R

Try and imagine the movie we need right now, amid a moment of great national turmoil, in which haunting, once-unfathomable stories and images from the Southern border have become a pervasive and lasting presence.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is the exact opposite of that movie. It is a nihilistic fantasy set on both sides of the border, in which macho Americans fire big weapons at stock Mexican criminal types because, well, that’s just what they do.

It is, of course, unfair to penalize a movie for being tone deaf due in some part to global circumstances beyond its control. It’d be impossible to think of worse timing for the film, and no work of art can be considered in a vacuum divorced from the circumstances offstage.

Honesty compels acknowledgment that this sequel offers a slick approximation of the stunning 2015 original. It comes complete with soaring shots of the dusty terrain, an ominous and droning score (Hildur Guðnadóttir replaces the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson) and action scenes that are realized with an eye for structure and coherence without sacrificing visceral intensity.

But while the 2015 “Sicario” had a moral center, realized in Emily Blunt’s tortured and conflicted FBI agent Kate Macer, the sequel dispenses with any such considerations. The sequel abandons the original’s motivating force: an examination of the fundamental emptiness at the core of the war on drugs, in the form of the sudden and brutal bursts of violence that define the lives of its central figures on both sides, causing immense personal loss.

Instead, Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver is tasked with starting a war between the cartels because the government alleges they’re responsible for smuggling terrorists into the country. The preening, tough-guy Graver ropes in Benicio Del Toro’s dead-eyed killer Alejandro Gillick, who joins the team of grunts for a “no rules” operation that involves kidnapping Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a drug lord.

There is nothing doing below the threadbare surface of the plot, crafted by returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan along with new director Stefano Sollima (replacing Denis Villeneuve). A movie that ostensibly aspires to topicality in fact offers little beyond dated archetypes — check out an early scene of Graver interrogating an African terror suspect — and a redemptive arc for del Toro that functions as a rushed attempt to shoehorn an element of humanity into a world where there is none.

The primary motivating factor in the making of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” appears to have been to develop a franchise out of an original, stand-alone film that managed to combine heart-wrenching action with meaningful storytelling. It’s simply not what we need right now, or ever.

Robert Levin