Benicio Del Toro stars in SICARIO 2: SOLDADO.
Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP/Sony Pictures

The American border policy is caged children screaming. We need a sober conversation. Or, oppositely, here’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which opens with the Border Patrol stopping undocumented immigrants from Mexico. One crosser mumbles an Islamic prayer — and blows himself up. More suicide bombs follow. In a zero-dark black site someplace Middle Eastern, U.S. government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, unpurple) counterattacks with enhanced interrogation: He skips the waterboarding, goes straight to exploding his prisoner’s family to torture him into coughing up intel. The trail leads to the cartels, so it’s a Vast Foreigner Conspiracy, terrorists and drug lords. The government gives Matt a huge retaliation budget, tells him to declare war on everyone. His strategy is simple: We’re America, bitch.

This all happens in, like, the first 20 minutes. It’s a bombastic opening act, cutting across time zones and globalist nightmares, and might surprise anyone who saw the first movie. 2015’s Sicario starred Emily Blunt as a naïve FBI agent spiraling through borderland ultraviolence. It was an austere, well-photographed, phony piece of crap, in love with its own demonic swagger. The breakout was Benicio Del Toro’s hitman, Alejandro, who looked whimsical and melancholy and so damn awesome killing people. Del Toro is one of the great presences of our age. He’s spent this decade paychecking as family-friendly Disney whack-jobs, waiting patiently for you all to finally catch up with Che. Sicario had the kick of watching Del Toro unleashed — and his magnetism was dangerous, imbalancing the already-fragile narrative logic. Alejandro, a tormented bad man, made anyone good look boring.

This sequel banishes Blunt, and her blunt outrage. It’s a bit better, a lot dumber. The new tone’s set early. Alejandro assassinates a cartel functionary in broad daylight. He’s wearing a mask — only so he can take it off, though, a flourish like David Caruso and his sunglasses. He executes the man, firing his gun exactly (I counted) 417 times.

So Sicario 2 is junk, but it’s stylish junk. Director Stefano Sollima has worked in Italian crime thrillers, and he brings a run-and-gun humanity to this, suggesting complexities of border society (where the first film defaulted to moody hellscapery). Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug heiress (Isabela Moner), whose survival becomes a five-ring geopolitical circus. And we meet Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teen with a future in the people-smuggling trade. Newcomer Rodriguez is powerful, simmering, a bit sad — Benicio-esque, in a word. Miguel lives in a house in Texas, just a few yards away from Mexico — an electric image that Sollima lingers on, long enough for you to realize the two countries are so close together and yet so far apart.

The riotous first act gives way to sensitivity, complicates the initial terror. Taylor Sheridan’s script can’t always get away from hyperbole. A nameless president is evoked, hilariously. (Catherine Keener plays the designated Government Person in a Suit, and she has a line about impeachment that makes you laugh in the worst way.)

Brolin is having fun; the other actors aren’t always served as well. Moner was great in Transformers 5, I swear, and she gets a spiky introduction. But her character’s reduced to a symbol of Alejandro’s moral code, a Plot Thing That Must Be Rescued. (Weirdest hot new trend: mournful killers on a fatality-heavy road trip with teenaged girls, as seen in The Last of Us and Logan.) Meanwhile, Miguel’s ascension through criminality requires two plot twists, one dumb enough to make your head hurt, one ludicrous enough to seem downright supernatural.

Del Toro’s still great. His quiet toughness makes this pulp feel like poetry. The best scenes in Sicario 2 are the silent moments with Del Toro — and he finds silent moments even amid the gunfire. But by the time you get to the climactic pyrotechnics, you feel this film has reduced Alejandro from a genuine character into a franchise icon. So Day of the Soldado is our generation’s Rambo: First Blood, Part 2, a half-mad sequel transforming a traumatized political parable into a fantasy of all-American murder gods. B