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Sicario: Day of the Soldado

At the Cinemark

(R)

Grade: C+

The 2015 “Sicario” was a violent but compelling journey into the midst of the Mexican drug cartel. Director Denis Villeneuve, who also helmed the stylish “Blade Runner 2049,” turned gushes of blood into poetry, with the help of an unsettling performance by Benicio Del Toro.

The 2018 sequel changes directors from French-Canadian director Villeneuve to Italian director Stefano Sollima. In the process, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” has lost both its artistry and its conscience. This time the blood comes without the verse.

Del Toro is back as Alejandro, whose family was killed by drug king Carlos Reyes. He’s hired by American drug officers who have been given carte blanche to attack the cartels. Alejandro is more than eager to get his revenge. In essence, he’s crossed over to become a deep dark double-agent.

But before that mission even begins the film inserts a brutal terrorist killing that includes the explicit killing of a mom holding her little girl. Later, a once innocent young boy will put a gun up to the head of a target and pull the trigger.

Scenes like those, so unapologetically cold-blooded, warn us that illumination was not the goal this time. To make matters worse, the flood of immigrants across our Southern border is exploited and dehumanized.

The links to the current immigration crisis are sometimes explicit. The story focuses on McAllen, Texas, which is the location where recent immigration protests were staged. Perhaps it’s coincidental, since film production started before this event, but the words “McAllen, Texas” scream across the screen.

To balance all this gruesome violence, the script introduces two touching stories of young victims. These compassionate narratives almost save the film.

Isabela Moner plays Isabel, the teen daughter of drug lord Reyes. Isabela is secretly kidnapped by American operatives in order to pit the cartels against one another. She’s a tough-as-nails teen who stares down her school principal after she’s involved in a bloody playground fight.

The school’s not going to punish the daughter of drug king, and she knows it.

But beneath Isabela’s teen bravado is a vulnerable kid, who gets increasingly terrified when bombs explode and people start dying around her. Alejandro sheds his persona as an amoral hitman, to become Isabela’s protector, even though he knows neither of them may make it out alive.

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Elijah Rodriguez plays Miguel, a young Mexican American with dreams of escaping poverty, but who is enticed into drug smuggling by his cousin. Miguel’s fall from innocence gives the film some poignancy.

If the film had zeroed in on Isabel and Miguel, and told a story of the collateral victims in the drug wars, we might have had a powerful sequel.

But the relentless violence combined with a gutless sequel-enabling ending sabotages any hope we have that this film could match the power and the beauty of its predecessor.

Remember the old Westerns where the double-fisted villain empties his Colt .45s into the marshal? And then our hero shakes it off and mows down the man in black? Welcome to “Sicario” 2018.

It’s worth a final reminder that films with violent subtexts have the ability, if they choose, to make a strong statement about the ultimate cost of violence and the futility of vigilante revenge as a “cure” for social injustice.

This story about young victims progresses steadily in that enlightening direction until director Sollima succumbs to the temptation to feed more rounds of ammo into his AK47 cameras -- and the screen explodes.

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