Action movies, even ultraviolent ones, tend toward the escapist, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan specializes in the non-escapist action thriller. Sheridan moved from acting to screenwriting with his script for the 2015 drug-war thriller "Sicario" and won an Oscar for his second script, a crime drama made as "Hell or High Water." Sheridan's nouveau take on the Western genre, his action-with-a-social-conscience formula (see also "Wind River"), recurs in his first sequel effort, "Sicario: Day of the Soldado."
"Sicario" followed Emily Blunt's FBI agent Kate Macer on a journey of crushing enlightenment about the war on drugs playing out along the U.S.-Mexico border. The sequel doesn't call for Blunt, though. Instead, the hard men of "Sicario" take over, pushing the series more distinctly into antiheroic territory. Matt Graver (returning player Josh Brolin) now functions as the protagonist, and a morally murky one, at best. Enlisted by the CIA (under the auspices of Matthew Modine's Secretary of Defense), Graver again sets out to disrupt the cartels, with the proviso "I'm going to have to get dirty."
Unsurprisingly, Graver's first stop is the apartment of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a shadow operative with a knowledge of the cartels and a deeply personal motivation to harm them. The "good guys" develop a plan: kidnap a drug lord's young daughter (Isabela Moner), make it look like the work of a rival cartel, and thus set the cartels upon each other for a while. This dirty trick answers a new terrorism crisis, since the cartels have begun trafficking Islamic-fundamentalist suicide bombers across the border.
This plot raises some obvious questions about how far the U.S. is willing to go to protect its own interests. Graver has trained himself to work without moral qualms. If one young girl has to be traumatized as a pawn in a bigger game, so be it. Gillick, too, is easily manipulated by his desire for revenge against the higher-ups of a particular cartel. In "Sicario," Gillick dispatched one man with direct responsibility for the deaths of Gillick's family members, but a bigger fish surfaces in "Day of the Soldado."
In the absence of Blunt's relative innocent, "Day of the Soldado" tracks not only a hostage schoolgirl, but also a cartel's newest recruit, a Mexican-American teenager (Elijah Rodriguez as the titular soldado, or soldier) living in Texas, along the border fence. This young man's soul hangs in the balance: will he become a drug dealer or a sicario (hitman), or can he escape the life? This is a dark dynamic we've seen before, and indeed much of "Day of the Soldado" feels redundant, with a minimum of character development and a maximum of heavy artillery.
Nevertheless, this is just about as high-toned as action pictures get. The cast is faultless (if anything, Del Toro remains so good that it's annoying he doesn't get more depth to play), and Sheridan throws in at least a few tart commentaries along the way (Catherine Keener's deputy CIA director chastises Graver, "You think change is the goal? You've been doing this too long to believe that"). "Day of the Soldado" may work a little too hard to be tough-minded and hard-bitten, but the continuing story of "Sicario" (which, yes, tees up a probable third chapter) remains a darkly compelling reminder of the multifaceted folly of our war on drugs.