The Brolinaissance continues with its most brutally timely chapter to date.
Josh Brolin’s strong movie summer (which has also included starring roles in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2”) finishes with him in full anti-hero mode in the grim action thriller “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday). Coming off 2015’s excellent “Sicario,” it’s the most unconventional and perhaps unnecessary sequel in a season full of follow-ups, but Brolin and Benicio Del Toro’s morally dubious characters keep “Soldado” gripping while subject matter makes it relevant.
Gone are the original film’s main star (Emily Blunt, whose FBI agent Kate Macer apparently got this mission off) and director (Denis Villeneuve). But continuing problems with drug cartels at the Mexican border means more stories to tell.
Written by “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by Stefano Sollima, “Soldado” catches up with CIA operative Matt Graver (Brolin) as he’s faced with the new and very dangerous possibility of terrorists being smuggled into America. He reaches out to his man down south, attorney-turned-hitman Alejandro (Del Toro), to ignite a turf war between cartels by kidnapping a kingpin’s daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner).
Josh Brolin (from left), Jeffrey Donovan and Benicio Del Toro lead a secret U.S. mission in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” The “Sicario” sequel arrives in theaters June 29. RICHARD FOREMAN JR./SMPSP/LIONSGATE
When the mission goes off-course, CIA deputy director Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) sees Isabel as collateral damage, and Graver gives Alejandro the order to take her out. However, the seemingly black-hearted assassin does have a soft side — Isabel reminds him of his own daughter, who was killed in the drug war — and he goes rogue, forcing a conflicted Graver to get a crew together to hunt his buddy down.
Sheridan has a knack for timely warts-and-all tales of the modern American way (“Hell or High Water,” “Wind River”), and he offers a thought-provoking view of how foreign policy, border security and human trafficking affect a wide swath of people — pretty much pick a hot-button topic and it’s here. “Soldado” isn’t overtly political, yet there is a ruthless nihilism to the government’s actions, especially with Foards’ no-matter-the-cost mindset. If you make Alejandro seem like a teddy bear, you’re plenty hardcore.
Del Toro deftly juggles that new sense of heart with the violence that follows in his path. Matching him in magnetic machismo is Brolin, whose Graver has just as much of a wide-swinging character arc as Alejandro from the first movie to the sequel.
Even with its standout actors, there’s definite artistry that hasn’t carried over between films: A nice contrast exists between Graver and Alejandro’s bloody world and the quiet, almost haunting Mexican vistas Alejandro and Isabel visit on the lam, but it’s nowhere as gorgeous as the first “Sicario” (shot by Oscar-winning cinematography legend Roger Deakins).