Sicario: Day of the Soldado puts the Benicio del Toro character firmly in the foreground this time. Also starring Josh Brolin and Catherine Keener.
Trickiest of all potential franchises is a sequel to what was already a really good movie. The original Sicario upended the usual crime-story with three genuinely complex characters in the hands of one of the best of today’s directors, Denis Villeneuve. So what happens next - and should it?
The first Sicario was set on the bleeding edge, as they say, of the war on drugs – the border between Mexico and the United States.
The lead character was an angry but naïve policewoman played by Emily Blunt, trying to keep her moral compass in a conflict with no morality.
Emily Blunt has been sacrificed for the sequel – Sicario Day of the Soldado. It initially seems that the new lead is her cynical boss Matt, played by Josh Brolin who seems to be everywhere this year.
Matt has been given carte blanche by the Government now it’s been discovered Mexico’s drug cartels are moving into the terrorist-smuggling business.
Matt calls in. an old colleague - Alejandro, the tortured sicario, or hitman, still hunting down the members of the cartel that murdered his family.
Alejandro is the extraordinary Benicio del Toro, and he’s the real lead character of Sicario 2.
It comes as a surprise to Alejandro – and to us – that he’d been playing by any rules before. So what does it mean when he’s turned loose?
In this case it means starting a war between the cartels by kidnapping the daughter of one of the crime kingpins.
The kidnap scene, where the so-called “good” mercenaries, led by Matt and Alejandro, pull off the snatch, only to be betrayed by the corrupt Mexican police in the pay of the cartels is as graphic and visceral as anything in the first Sicario.
The story is initially driven by Matt’s even more hard-boiled boss – the great Catherine Keener, seen far too little in the film – who tells him the President is right behind his crew playing as dirty as he needs to.
She doesn’t quite say he’s making America great again, but it is implied.
However, like all sweeping solutions to intractable problems, it’s not as easy as it looks.
And meanwhile on the other side of the border, Alejandro’s holed up with the teenaged girl he kidnapped. Despite himself, he starts seeing parallels between her plight and what happened to his own family.
Who are the bad guys in this situation?
In the last film, we saw the crime bosses at home with their families, justifying their appalling crimes with that well-worn defense: it’s just business, it’s not personal.
But now Alejandro and Matt find themselves on different sides of a dirty war, being told to tidy up the loose ends.
Sicario 2 has many of the strengths of its classic predecessor. But there’s something missing, something distinctively brutal and unforgiving.
Once Alejandro was an empty husk, a fatally wounded wild animal. But now he’s softening into – well, into yet another Hollywood anti-hero.
It’s a fine distinction but a telling one. This Sicario – subtitled Day of the Sodado, whatever that is – is certainly action-packed, with good actors, and an interesting twist at the end.
But it can’t quite bring itself to take it to the unpalatable limit like the original film did.
This is a pretty good thriller where the original was a great one - just as Italian director Stefano Sollima is a capable technician, replacing ruthless artist Denis Villeneuve.
But that said, Sicario Day of the Soldado is worth seeing for one stellar performance, if nothing else. Benicio del Toro single-handedly justifies another sequel, I think. But next time, turn him loose.