Stefano Sollima's murky, clunky, but sometimes nihilistically exhilarating "Sicario: Day of the Soldado," a follow-up to Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario" (2015), starts out like the kind of paranoid conspiracy theory spun by certain websites.
An undocumented migrant crossing the border from Mexico turns out to be a terrorist. He blows himself up, taking some federal agents with him. Then suicide bombers kill dozens in a Kansas City supermarket. The jihadists seem to have allied themselves with the Mexican cartels, who apparently have been slipping them into the United States hidden among the busloads of migrants illegally entering the country to vote in our elections.
OK, that last bit isn't true.
To counter the threat, the secretary of defense (Matthew Modine, looking like a pasty Warren Beatty), taking a tip perhaps from Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" (1964), sends in a task force to kidnap 12-year-old Isabela (Isabela Moner), daughter of a cartel leader. The plan is to blame it on another cartel and so instigate a war between the two, disrupting the network.
However, further investigation indicates that the initial assessment of the situation is faulty, and after the botched mission ends up killing more than 20 Mexican policemen (the film has a high body count, and they are almost all brown), the CIA deputy director (Catherine Keener) decides that "the narrative has been changed" and the operation is aborted.
Unfortunately, the movie's narrative putters on its way, contrived and bumpy but made diverting by performances from the two holdovers from the original film. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, who when bearded bears a disturbing resemblance to The Dude in "The Big Lebowski"), remains amoral and wisecracking but finds himself backed into a moral dilemma. His chief asset, the lawyer-turned-hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro in the kind of compelling performance that requires only one facial expression), still devastated by the cartel-ordered murder of his wife and daughter, balks when ordered to dispose of the now-inconvenient Isabela. If we do this, he asks, echoing every movie of this kind made over the past 50 years, how are we different from them? Like the hitman in "Leon: The Professional" (1994), he bonds with the girl and becomes her protector, complicating matters for his boss and buddy Graver.
Had Sollima focused on this tried-but-true tragic formula, and had he maintained the mood of dread and darkness that gave the original film its power, he might have achieved more than just an adequate sequel. Instead, he and scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the original) dither away into subplots, including one that is ludicrously contrived and seems designed to continue the franchise.
★ ★ ½
SICARIO: Day of the Soldado
Directed by Stefano Sollima. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Isabela Moner, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 122 minutes. R (strong violence, bloody images, language). In English and Spanish, with subtitles.