Josh Brolin gets one of the all-time great introductions in Sicario. We meet his character, Matt Graver, in a Department of Justice conference room. Everyone else around the table is in a suit and tie; he’s wearing a T-shirt and an unbuttoned collared shirt. He peers at Emily Blunt from over the top of a pair of reading glasses.

Brolin placidly asks a series of innocent questions of Blunt’s character, who has just survived a hellish assault on a drug cartel safe house. Blunt leaves then glances down: Graver is conducting national security business in a pair of flip flops, like a reformed hippie who stumbled into a government job.

In his first scene in the sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, we see that Graver has traded his flip flops for a pair of Crocs. Otherwise, Graver’s quirks seem largely missing this time out. Maybe that’s because we already know the monster beneath his patrician facade, and there was no sense hiding it this time. Or maybe it’s because Blunt’s character, a newcomer to his unscrupulous war on drugs, isn’t in this sequel, and so he doesn’t need to put a friendly face on the horrific acts he carries out. Whatever the reason, Graver only vaguely resembles the man from Sicario, a weakness he largely shares with the rest of the film around him, a superficial sequel that lacks the first movie’s unique quirks and soul.

This time out, Graver is unleashed with “no rules” after a series of terrorist attacks supposedly carried out by suicide bombers smuggled across the Mexican border by drug cartels. (According to Graver, tighter border security is actually good for the drug and human trafficking business, because people get desperate and higher demand means higher prices.) He pitches the Secretary of the Defense (Matthew Modine) a bold plan: Secretly instigate a drug war between cartels by kidnapping Isabela (Transformers: The Last Knight’s Isabela Moner), the teen daughter of a Mexican kingpin and blaming it on a rival gang. Graver warns the Secretary that such a scheme will require him to “get dirty.” “Dirty,” Modine replies, is why you’re here.”

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Dirty also requires the assistance of Graver’s trusted ally from the first movie, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a former lawyer whose family was murdered by the cartels. Graver turns up at Gillick’s house and offers him the chance to fight his enemies with “no rules,” and he agrees. They swipe the girl and sneak her into the United States and then everything goes to hell. Graver’s team attempt to return her to Mexico is compromised, leaving Gillick and Isabela on one side of the border and Graver on the other — where his government bosses order him to eliminate his friend and his hostage to tie up messy loose ends.

This reluctant conflict between Brolin and Del Toro is the most interesting thing in Day of the Soldado, but it doesn’t even get put into motion until three quarters of the way through the film, and the way it plays out seems more focused on setting up a potential Sicario 3 than resolving Sicario 2 as a satisfying experience unto itself. As in the first film, Del Toro’s Alejandro is the most compelling character; he takes 40 minutes to show up in Soldado and then most of his part is consumed with the plot machinations of taking the girl, sneaking her into the United States, and trying to return her. The moral and ethical complexities of his actions — along with Brolin’s previous peculiar eccentricities — are mostly left to the audience and their memories of the first film.

Few sequels are as thematically challenging as their predecessors, and if Day of the Soldado was at least directed with the precision that made the first film such an intense experience, that would be less of an issue. Instead, Soldado drags through long tedious stretches of video briefings and a subplot about a young man who slips deeper and deeper into the cartel, a deliberate echo of a similar subplot in the first film that had a much more meaningful payoff. Stefano Sollima’s images and action don’t come close to matching Denis Villeneuve’s; there’s really only one set-piece, a convoy chase on a dirt road, that approaches anything in the original Sicario. 

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Taylor Sheridan’s Sicario screenplay was rich with details about life on both sides of the border and queasy moral conundrums. It was also a riveting thriller. Sheridan returned to write Soldado, so I’m left wondering where all of those elements went. The film opens with truly horrifying acts of terrorist violence, then completely forgets they even happened. Graver and Gillick kidnap Isabela to pit the cartels against each other, but Sollima never shows any of these men (including the girl’s father, who would surely be the most interesting player in this drama if he appeared onscreen even once).

If this was all Sheridan’s attempt to critique America’s drug war, which in this film seems like it is an excuse for American’s military to fight itself, he may have a point. He doesn’t necessarily have a compelling story, though. Day of the Soldado’s stakes remain largely abstract, if they exist at all. It’s mostly a bunch of miserable guys shooting each other for vague reasons in the desert. Watching it made me miss Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin’s flip flops.