Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a fascinating movie to watch, but not in the way it wants. The first film was an unexpected hit (largely thanks to the prodigious but then-unfamiliar talents of director Denis Villeneuve) by creating an unrelenting and tense experience that bucked most of what you’d expect from a crime thriller. This film wants to do that, too, but simply doesn’t know how.

That makes it a conceptually interesting piece of media, like watching someone trying to emulate calculus without understanding arithmetic. But the ambition is there, almost aggressively so at the hands of director Stefano Sollima and returning writer Taylor Sheridan. And strangely, it’s hard to tell if any of it was intentional or simply incidental.

The premise, as a sequel to the first Sicario, is that CIA Special Activities Division Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called upon to fix the rising tide of the Mexican cartels on the US side of the border. This is after a suicide bombing in Kansas City leads the US government to believe the cartels are smuggling these terrorists into the country, so the US declares the cartels terrorist organizations and sets out to clear them off the map via Graver, his team, and returning vengeance-seeker Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro).

Considering that principal photography began the day the 2016 election ended and we all knew Donald Trump would be the one to drag America into a slow and messy demise, it seems Sheridan was more prescient than reactionary. That makes the thematic through line of this and all his movies all the more painful to swallow: that might can be the means, but being right is rarely (if ever) the end. But the way the film explores this is basically nonexistent.

Most notably it sort of just…dives in. Not that that’s a problem on its own, but it certainly is when the film assumes that the rest of the story will fill you in along the way. And to an extent it does, but only in so much that you have to squint away all the gaps and contrivances as reasons and motives are exposed. Perhaps worse is that as those oddities come crashing in, you can see them tumbling down the pike from a mile away.

And it certainly, unavoidably tumbles along the way. There’s an immeasurable lack of balance to the film, careening this way and that as the two most unflinchingly violent characters of the first film retain their bloody ways while being bumped up to lead status. Without anyone ideologically on the other side of their crusade to take down the cartels, a lot of what the story wants to challenge us over (namely the imagery refugees, Islamic terrorists, and the handling of US-Mexico border relations) just gets dumped either on us as words or off to the wayside as refuse.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

The simulacrum composition continues through to simply how the movie looks. It wants so desperately to conjure the visuals of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work but fails to understand what any of it is accomplishing. It looks like Sicario in the way a watch purchased from a guy in a trench coat looks like a Rolex.

At least the action itself is mostly done well. The two main action sequences are tense enough to leave you breathless at times, even if you don’t particularly care about the outcome. Sollima has a slick understanding of how to make shootouts not just feel like action/reaction shots in rapid succession.

There’s plenty of potential in this film, especially as Sheridan continues to explore his potent obsession with Western film morality with modern framing and Sollima hones his eye for crime drama. But none of it is fulfilled here. It falls remarkably flat despite being mostly competent at being A Movie. If you’re looking for a way to kill two hours, you could definitely do worse, but you could also do way better if you want to come away impressed.

Final Score: 6 out of 10