Sicario: Day Of The Soldado (NC16)
122 minutes/Opens July 19/3.5 stars
The story: After terrorists are found to have entered the United States via the Mexican border, CIA operative Graver (Josh Brolin) is given carte blanche by his government to wage a covert war against the people-smuggling gangs. He enlists the aid of Alejandro (Benecio del Toro), an assassin. Together, they stir up an inter-gang war by kidnapping Isabela (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a kingpin, while disguised as members of a rival group.
Sicario (2015) was an unexpected commercial success. While it starred A-listers like Brolin, del Toro and Emily Blunt, it was a strange mix of pulpy, sometimes horrific action, social commentary and arthouse pacing, all seen through the eyes of a naive FBI agent Kate (Blunt), a principled woman with a self-destructive streak and terrible taste in men.
What made the first movie stand out in a sea of socially conscious thrillers was its series of indelibly staged action scenes. They illustrated episodes in a soul-corrupting dirty war, one that has become an absurd, unending nightmare.
In this follow-up, director Denis Villeneuve and Blunt are absent. New director Stefano Sollima has spent years working in crime shows about the mob in his home country of Italy, so he knows the craft of telling stories in which the difference between the good guys and the bad is academic.
His approach, however, is more televisually generic, compared with his predecessor's masterful use of pauses, wordless exchanges and slow build-ups.
The writer from the first film, Taylor Sheridan, returns for the sequel, and so is his sense of disquiet about a vicious war in which ends not only justify the means, the ends themselves count for nothing unless they can be media-spun for political gain.
Without Blunt's Kate to act as the moral compass for the film, that job is now placed on the unlikely shoulders of Brolin's CIA operative Graver and, believe it or not, the stone-cold assassin of del Toro's Alejandro.
The fit is not perfect and feels too convenient - are they not supposed to represent the awesome and icy-cold military reach of the United States government? - but to director Sollima's credit, their psychological shifts are believable, if not completely understandable.