If you would know, would truly know, how good Roger Deakins is at his job, there's now a simple way to demonstrate it. Just take any daytime exterior shot from the 2015 Sicario, and compare it to any daytime exterior shot from that film's decidedly unncessary sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. And look, I'm not going to say anything bad about Dariusz Wolski, who is certainly a reliable, very fine cinematographer, and who has done nothing at all wrong in filming Day of the Soldado. It's just that the film lacks... mythology? Like, any given shot in Day of the Soldado - we're still talking daytime exteriors, mind - probably has a sharp, clear quality, cleanly separating every layer of action, exposing all of the subjects with just a touch more brightness than the less-important elements of the frame, making us feel the presence of the sun and the thinness of the air. Good, solid stuff, the stuff you hire a reliable cinematographer for. But any given shot in Sicario has a dreamy, hazy quality: this amazing, almost imperceptible way of causing the tan, sandy ground to blur into the watery blue sky as a gradient. It's a way of presenting the world that makes it feel like a sort of abstract non-space, like being trapped in a terrarium or a UPA cartoon, and it superbly feeds the film's overall mood of terrible grandeur and moral depravity as a crushing, physical thing. Day of the Soldado just makes sure we get that it's Mexico, and it's sunny out.

Take that experiment, and re-run it with basically anything that goes into the creation of a film, and you have the experience of Day of the Soldado, a movie that fails to live up to Sicario in every possible way. The closest thing to an exception is the music: composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who played cello on the last film's soundtrack, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom this movie is dedicated), does a very good job of building on her predecessor's glowering, atmospheric work. Although it's rather conspicuous when Jóhannsson's cue "The Beast" shows up that it is the best thing on the soundtrack.

Otherwise, it's all just a whole lot less: the sound mix is less overpowering, the editing less breathtaking (indeed, Day of the Soldado has some pretty extreme pacing problems), the acting from returning leads Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro much less acutely savage and potent. Most of all, it's nowhere remotely near as good as a story, for the highly predictable reason that there's no Emily Blunt this time around, nor any character who serves as a Blunt-analogue. This proves to be a critical oversight. Sicario is a blunt, nasty wallow in human meanness and misery, depicting the violence that men do with a positively nihilistic focus on blood and broken bodies. I've thought pretty much from the moment I first saw it that the film would have been almost unwatchably dour and blackhearted without having a moral anchor for the audience, such as the one Blunt provides, and I suppose I should be happy that Day of the Soldado proves me right: it's probably, all in all, less nihilistic than its predecessor, but without a Blunt figure to serve as our eyes, ears, and conscience, all that remains is an endless stream of grisly, miserable grunting.

As before, the plot barely exists: Mexican drug cartels have taken to smuggling radical Islamic terrorists into the United States, and in retaliation, the CIA wants to provoke a war between the major cartels. The man who gets the job, under the direction of one Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), is Matt Graver (Brolin), who brings with him the expertise of asset Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro), a man from whom all of the humanity has burned away. To start the war, Graver's team kills the lawyer from one cartel, and arranges a much more personal assault on another: the CIA is going to kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabel Moner), the daughter of the cartel boss.

As before, the story is barely more than a pretext: what actually matters is pure procedure, which hardly earns the name. It's too vicious and anarchic for that. Really, what we get is no more nor less than than a world gone mad, being navigated by a pair of men particularly capable of bending it to their will. This worked in Sicario for two reasons: the presence of a good audience surrogate is one, and the hand of director Denis Villeneuve (who has still not made a better film, to my eyes) is the other. Day of the Soldado has no surrogate, and it has for its director Stefano Sollima, a veteran of a couple Italian crime dramas making his first film in English. It's not that his approach to the film is in any distinct way "bad", but it's wholly impersonal. Villeneuve had a clear goal in mind: operatic levels of human suffering. Sollima has a much more sedate, clinical eye; in Day of the Soldado's best moments - the snatch-and-grab of poor Isabel, or the genuinely tense and enthralling race-against-the-clock climax in which a group of human traffickers prepare to execute a prisoner in the harsh glare of headlights at night - he attains a somewhat documentarian relationship to the material, one in which we're asked to be more attentive to moment-by-moment behaviors than to the overall plot. That level of objectivity proves to be hard to sustain, though, and far too much of Day of the Soldado simple watches impassively as the protagonists go about their bloody business.

It's a dreary, droning film that results from this. The first half is at least slightly better, given that the complete absence of a clear narrative throughline means that we have to keep running to catch up with the film; once it shifts gears to focus mostly on the problem of What To Do With Isabel, it grows a bit more sedate and routine (it also makes some totally unsuccessful bids to deepen Gillick's character, who Del Toro plays with such sardonic, ragged detachment that I sincerely thought he was lying when he reveals a major detail of his backstory. The results feel even worse than cloying sentiment - they feel like cloying sentiment that won't gel). At all points, though, the film suffers from quite a bit of repetitiveness, relying on a relatively small variety in the types of scenes we get. The first film very distinctly offers the feeling of a plunge into chaos; this movie has no clear direction, just a broad "do this thing", and then several individual pieces of the thing being done. So it's extremely dark and unpleasant and boring. That's a rough combination: with no sense of escalation or picking up speed, the film's brutal content weirdly feels like it's not brutal enough, or rather that it's not brutal to any purpose. It merely wanders through largely unstressed scenes of awful men doing wretched things, with none of the apocalyptic rush of its predecessor. It's a hard film to sit through and for no clear purpose, and what on earth is meant to be rewarding about that?