"SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO" — 3½ stars — Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan; R (strong violence, bloody images and language); in general release
If timing is everything, "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" is bound to turn a lot of heads.
Stefano Sollima's follow-up to Denis Villeneuve's grim 2015 examination of U.S.-Mexico border relations is tense, sobering and certain to inspire reaction from all sorts of political ideologies.
"Day of the Soldado" throws down the gauntlet right away, as an Islamic terrorist blows himself up to avoid capture while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Moments later, a group of suicide bombers walk into a Kansas City grocery store and fulfill their missions.
After connecting a few dots, the U.S. government decides to target the Mexican drug cartels that are enabling so much of the problem. Where the first film focused on the innocent perspective of Emily Blunt's FBI agent Kate Macer, this story follows Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the shadowy operative she worked with who is now tasked with waging an unofficial war on the cartels.
Graver understands success will require that things get dirty, and behind closed doors, Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) tells Graver, "Dirty is exactly why you're here."
So Graver turns to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the lawyer who turned mercenary operative when the cartels murdered his family. The idea is simple: Turn the cartels on each other in the hopes that they'll wipe each other out without putting U.S. boots on the ground. The means are a little more troublesome: Kidnap a cartel leader's daughter (Isabel Moner) and make it look like the work of one of his rivals.
The plan goes bad, and as Graver and Alejandro are forced to improvise their way out of the results, "Day of the Soldado" ramps up both its action and its tension. And while this all plays out, a parallel plot thread follows the story of a Latino Texas teenager named Miguel (a shark-eyed Elijah Rodriguez), who gets recruited into the cartel by his cousin.
To describe too much of the plot would be a disservice to the efforts of Sollima and writer Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the first film (as well as last year's "Wind River"). "Day of the Soldado" is very much an action movie, and it earns its R rating with sporadic profanity and some brutal violence. But unlike similar genre films, Sheridan uses violence only where it serves a specific purpose and is not gratuitous.
At a time when border immigration issues dominate the news cycle, Sollima's film should draw even more attention. At the same time, people looking for quick validation of their political perspectives will instead find a bold illustration of a complex issue that mixes Islamic terrorism, cartel violence, political machinations and desperate immigrants into a bloody knot.
Sad to say, some late logistical problems hamper the film's third act, and in spite of Brolin and Del Toro's strong antihero performances, audiences may stretch to find someone to cheer for without Blunt around (even Moner's character is portrayed as unsympathetic).
But for the most part, "Day of the Soldado" displays the same knack for story and tension that drove the first film, and returning viewers should mostly feel happy with the effort — even if the results are more sobering than elevating.
"Sicario: Day of the Soldado" is rated R for strong violence, bloody images and language; running time: 122 minutes.