It's not that there are no winners in the war on drugs. It's that it's hard to tell the combatants apart.
That seems to be the message of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” a sequel to 2015's simply named “Sicario” that has brutal American agents fighting vicious Mexican cartels.
The original movie had a similar setting, but it also had Emily Blunt as an FBI agent assigned to a super-secret, super-macho anti-drug task force. She provided audiences with a different point of view, and provided the film with a bit of a conscience.
She's missing from this sequel, though, which turns things over to her former costars Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. And without the softening perspective of Blunt's character, the movie gets very mean very quickly.
The story revolves around human smuggling, which, the U.S. government insists, has become a new profit center for Mexican gangs. So CIA operative Matt Graver (Brolin) comes up with a plan: kidnap the daughter of one gangster, then blame it on another. And watch while they all kill each other off.
It's an idea, all right, but not a very good one.
It's hard to believe Washington would sanction a mission like this, and even harder to root for Brolin and Del Toro's characters once they pull it off. No matter who her father is, this is still a 12-year-old girl in her school uniform, grabbed at gunpoint, tied up, blindfolded and driven away screaming.
And these guys are our heroes?
That may be the movie's point — desperate times require desperate measures — but it makes the film hard to take. Particularly after we've already watched Graver torture one suspect by blowing up his brother on camera. And seen assassin Alejandro (Del Toro) catch up with a mob lawyer and execute the unarmed man in the street.
Director Stefano Sollima finds interesting ways to change the look and color of the film, bouncing between satellite surveillance footage and green-tinted night vision. Brolin and Del Toro exude cold determination, if little else.
And there's no arguing about whether the action sequences — the in-broad-daylight abduction, a desert highway ambush — are exciting. Or that the tension doesn't ratchet up tremendously in one scene, when Alejandro is recognized at just the wrong moment.
But even for an exploitation movie, the way this film treats hot-button issues feels needlessly exploitive. (There's an entire terrorism subplot that goes nowhere.) And its calm characterization of our own government agents as violent criminals leaves us little to hold onto.
There's great drama — and maybe even a strong message — in a movie about the war on drugs. But if you really want us to care, first you have to give us people worth caring about.
Stephen's Grade: C+
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
Director: Stefano Sollima