correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified a character who works as a mule for human traffickers as being a Mexican teenager. The character, played by Elijah Rodriguez, is American. This version has been updated.


Benicio Del Toro, left, and Josh Brolin play shadowy U.S. government operatives in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” (Richard Foreman, Jr./SMPSP/Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Reporter

Rating: 1.5 stars

The first question you might have while watching “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is: “What on Earth has happened to Taylor Sheridan?” The otherwise smart and provocative screenwriter, known for his gritty, poetic and authentic screenplays for the western-set thrillers “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River” (the last of which he also directed), seems missing in action. In this dumbed-down sequel to his 2015 debut, the story is far-fetched, the dialogue is forced and phony, and the milieu of the film — set in the violent battleground between Mexican drug cartels and shadowy, rule-bending U.S. government agents — is unrecognizable.

All of these problems could, theoretically, have something to do with the absence of director Denis Villeneuve. The filmmaker of the original “Sicario” (and the Oscar-nominated “Arrival”) was reportedly too busy with “Blade Runner 2049” to direct “Soldado,” handing it off to Italian director Stefano Sollima, who is known for bloody, mob-centric crime thrillers with misanthropic hearts — credentials that stand him in good stead here.

Yet “Soldado” looks and feels enough like the first film, albeit a shallow imitation of it, that I suspect the fault lies not with the man behind the camera but the one in front of the keyboard. Could Sheridan have been too tied up with his ambitious contemporary western TV series “Yellowstone” (a hit for the Paramount network) to focus on this project?

“Soldado” centers on the enigmatic character of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) from the first “Sicario,” a lawyer-turned-sicario, or assassin, who has died inside after his wife and daughter were killed by a drug lord. Here, he becomes part of a lunatic plot by the U.S. government to disrupt a trans-border smuggling operation in which Mexican cartels appear to be trafficking in a new form of human cargo: Islamic terrorists, several of whom may or may not have been responsible for the suicide bombing in a Kansas City Costco that opens the film.

To fight this threat, the U.S. secretary of defense (Matthew Modine) and his crony (a cardboard Catherine Keener) hatch a secret plan: start a war between “everyone” — i.e., the U.S. and Mexican armies, American covert operatives, various drug cartels and the Mexican police force — simply by kidnapping the teenage daughter of a cartel boss (Isabela Moner) and making it look like it was done by a rival gang. Keep it messy, someone says, with a heartlessness that looks less like cynicism than pure evil: “Sloppy makes it look like the cartel did it.”


Benicio Del Toro plays an assassin grieving his wife alongside Isabela Moner. (Richard Foreman, Jr./ SMPSP/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

In this case, sloppiness is also the operative word for the confused and improbable narrative that follows, which ends up pitting Alejandro against his sometime partner-in-arms Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a CIA operative who is able to conjure up a small fleet of Blackhawk military helicopters — and enough firepower to start two wars — simply by asking for them nicely. (Or, in his case, with the kind of tough-guy bark that you only hear in movies.)

When the scheme goes south, literally — meaning into the Mexican desert — and figuratively — meaning all hell breaks loose — Alejandro is stuck babysitting an innocent pawn who has become a liability (and who not coincidentally reminds him of his daughter). Matt, for his part, has an unpleasant cleanup job on his hands.

The story from this point on is bloody, needlessly busy and oddly boring, incorporating a subplot about a teenager (Elijah Rodriguez) who works as a mule for human traffickers. Despite the hot-button subject matter, there is no sense of currency, or even controversy, here. The drama seems less personal or political than one calculated for shock value. One late, violent plot twist is so preposterous as to defy the level of credulity one normally reserves for a horror film.

This may not be accidental. With a subtitle that suggests something closer to the 1962 B-movie appeal of “The Day of the Triffids” than the 1975 Oscar-nominated “The Day of the Locust,” “Day of the Soldado” feels like a film in the midst of a profound identity crisis.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, bloody images and crude language. 122 minutes.