Benicio Del Toro plays an assassin alongside Isabela Moner in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado." 

Benicio Del Toro plays an assassin alongside Isabela Moner in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado." 

Richard Foreman Jr. - SMPSP/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Sicario: Day of the Soldado walks a tricky line. Or perhaps it swims that line through the rivers of blood it spills.

On the one hand, the sequel to the first-rate 2015 thriller Sicario wants us to cluck our tongues at the gruesome means these characters deploy toward the end of fighting terrorism and drug cartels. On the other, it wants to revel in the carnage scattered in all directions by federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his Colombian assassin colleague Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Yes, the movie says, bending the laws for covert ops is an ugly business. But it's fun to watch, right?

The thing is, Soldado is fun to watch. The screenplay, written by the prolific Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote the first movie), snaps, moves and fleshes out its characters and their moral compromises. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski creates a perfect correlative for a dark and dangerous and ambiguous shadow world. The cast, from the grimly smug Brolin and the lethally laconic Del Toro on down to the bit players, makes it clear that they give a damn. All of these factors build a seriousness of intent that keeps Soldado from descending into mere exploitation of blood, guts and explosions.

In ‘Sicario,’ the war on drugs has no rules of engagement

Sheridan's story manages to hit upon three global crisis points: terrorism, cartel violence and immigration. Suicide bombers are entering the U.S. via Mexico, a state of affairs that doesn't please the Secretary of Defense (played as an automaton bureaucrat by Matthew Modine). He brings in Graver, who brings in Alejandro. The mission: Kidnap the adolescent daughter of a drug kingpin in hopes of starting a mutually destructive war among rival cartels.

Meanwhile, a McAllen teen (Elijah Rodriguez) goes to work for a drug lord as a coyote and a killer, guiding immigrants across an increasingly monitored border. "You'll make more money than your dad makes in a year," the kid's boss tells him before his first job. Soldado dovetails nicely with Wolf Boys, the killer nonfiction book by Dan Slater about teens lured by the long green of the drug trade.

Soldado's world view is cynical and pitch-black, befitting a story in which covert (but extremely loud) and murderous deeds are executed in the name of national security. But the movie makes a convincing pivot about halfway through and starts sorting through the human consequences of all the mayhem. Men assigned to do amoral tasks begin to realize they might actually have a conscience. If handled crudely, this turn would feel like an awkward tack-on job. But Sheridan, whose credits also include Hell or High Water and the new TV series Yellowstone, is too good a writer for that. The uneasy redemption in Soldado feels earned, not forced.

Rodriguez is excellent as the sicario-in-training, as is Isabel Moner as the kidnapped girl. There's something sadly resonant about seeing kids used as pawns along the border, players in a game they scarcely understand. Soldado skillfully mixes its real-world grounding with a flair for pulpy, moody storytelling. It leaves a body count, along with an emotional mark.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado
B+

R (strong violence, bloody images and language). 122 mins. In wide release.

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