“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” — the follow-up to 2015’s “Sicario” — is an unexpected sequel. It’s a pessimistic, grownup film — not exactly pop entertainment.
Moreover, the earlier film was only a modest hit and modestly acclaimed, though a few critics included it among the year’s best.
The new movie is even riskier, and lacking three people who elevated the original from a good crime film to a great one.
The main character played by Emily Blunt does not return. She was the viewers’ entry point into “Sicario,” stepping into unknown and sometimes unsettling situations, along with the audience.
Also gone are cinematography great, Oscar-nominated Roger Deakins, who framed each shot wide and frequently cluttered, to emphasize the uncertainty; and director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), who surrounded Blunt with big, hardened men, underlining her seemingly small, more vulnerable stature.
In the sequel, they’re replaced by the more ordinary Dariusz Wolski, cinematographer for “The Martian,” and Italian director Stefano Sollima.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” — “sicario” translates into “hired killer” and “soldado” is “soldier” — is also more ordinary, perfectly serviceable, somewhat smart and mostly entertaining.
Three key players do return; screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, who plays Matt Graver, a specialist called in to concoct a drastic plan.
With the U.S. classifying drug cartels as terrorists, Graver is given resources to stage the kidnapping of a drug lord’s teen daughter, and make it look as if a rival drug lord were responsible.
He calls in his associate Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro) for help, and the plan comes off smoothly. That is, until they are ambushed by the Mexican government. During the shootout, the kidnapped girl, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), runs away, and Gillick goes after her.
In the middle of the desert, Gillick and Isabel find refuge with a kindly deaf man; Gillick can communicate through sign language because his own daughter, slain by drug lords, was also deaf.
But while making their plans to get to safety, Graver gets the order that the plan is to be terminated, and all loose ends are to be severed. (Catherine Keener is perfect as Graver’s steely boss.)
Actor-turned-screenwriter Sheridan has made a splash with smart stories of tough men on the edge of injustice (“Hell or High Water” and “Wind River” in addition to the “Sicario” films).
Yet he takes an irritating shortcut in this sequel, basing a major plot twist on a ridiculous coincidence, a scene that feels ripped from a much lesser film.
But it’s great to see Gillick again. Del Toro’s performance in the last film was electrifying, suffering, but 99 percent cool surface, and Sheridan finds an interesting postscript for him here.
Sheridan also shows just how brutal the drug business is, from kids being shot to an American mother with her baby asleep in the back seat, picking up newly-arrived drug-runners. (“Show me another job that pays better, and I’ll do it,” she says.) There’s corruption on all sides.
“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” feels like a step down, a typical diminishing returns sequel in the shadow of its much better predecessor, but taken on its own, it’s not bad. If grownups want to see a good, smart crime story, they could do much worse.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes