Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles in this action-packed follow-up to the 2015 drug cartel thriller.

Although this sequel to the blistering 2015 drug cartel drama Sicario has lost four of the original’s key creative contributors — director Denis Villeneuve, star Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the late composer Johann Johannson — Sicario: Day of the Soldado emerges as a dynamic action drama in its own right. Making sure of that is writer Taylor Sheridan, who’s hatched a compelling new yarn that triggers rugged, full-bodied work from returning leading men Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. With the first film having grossed just a moderate $85 million worldwide, a follow-up was no sure thing, but its successor digs in its dramatic claws from the outset and keeps the tension high and dramatic twists coming in ways that should spark a solid commercial life.

In his brief but meteoric career as a screenwriter, Sheridan (Hell or High Water) has successfully applied Old West dramatic tropes to New West situations, vitalizing both in the process. Here, he uses the ruse of a secret CIA kidnapping of the teenage daughter of a Mexican cartel kingpin to explore corruption and criminality on all sides of the drug wars — and especially how they ensnare the very young in their net. No one comes out of this clean, but a few come out alive to fight another day.

The macro tale opens on the U.S.-Mexican border that was so vividly rendered in the original film. In a nocturnal scene, depicted entirely through night vision goggles and greatly resembling Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s brilliantly nightmarish virtual reality short, Carne y Arena, about American authorities apprehending migrants in the desert at night, one man blows himself up. At the same time in Kansas City, four guys stride into a big store and set off big explosions, killing many. Some guards are picked off in Somalia. Learning that the K.C. bombers came in from Mexico, CIA op Matt Graver (Brolin) reports to D.C. to get his nasty marching orders from the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine), reminding him that “dirty is exactly why you’re here.”

The micro story sees taciturn 14-year-old U.S. citizen Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) helping a low-end trafficker get people across the border as a warm-up for becoming more deeply involved with a Mexican cartel. There can be no doubt that these multiple strands will twist together like thorny vines before the film’s brisk two hours are over.

Graver’s assignment to snatch crime boss Carlos Reyes’ daughter holds considerable emotional appeal to attorney Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose family was killed by the drug lord in question at the end of the first film and who welcomes Graver’s prediction, “You’re going to help us start a war.” The about-to-be victim, Isabela (Isabela Moner), is cheekily introduced as a rude and privileged early teen who would instantly be expelled from school if not for her father’s status, and director Stefano Sollima proves his worthiness for this tough-minded, hard-action material by the powerful way he handles Isabela’s kidnapping as she’s being driven home by bodyguards through a posh Mexico City neighborhood.

After the clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy dynamics of the opening act, matters become more vague and fluid in the film’s mid-section. A good part of the point is that it’s always very difficult, if not impossible, to tell which side anyone, other than the Americans, is on. Many Mexican police are in bed with Reyes, which makes the Americans’ job virtually impossible; from a political and PR point of view, how do you go after the bad guys if killing them will cause international scandal and compromise the job you’re trying to pull off?

At a certain point, Isabela escapes the clutches of her captors, but even then it’s difficult to know how she might find a road back from the middle of the desert to safety. No matter which side you’re on, you can never know if the next person you meet is going to be your friend or foe, a situation the pic plays to its considerable advantage.

Still, with so many uncertainties lingering in the air and numerous fates hanging in the balance, the film’s mid-section suffers a bit from the attenuated plotting, the drama slowing and the tension flattening out a bit. For a while, the movie’s ambiguities get the better of it as the characters become stuck in a figurative as well as literal no-man’s-land, even if it continues to be punctuated with spasms of terrible violence.

At a certain point, things get so out of hand that Graver’s operation is shut down, but that still leaves Alejandro and Isabela out in the desert, where some truly wacky things start to happen. Fate sticks out its foot more than once to trip up these mere mortals, but then sometimes changes its mind just for fun to see what they might make of one more chance. The final stretch includes some startling, even wacky twists and shifts in fortune, sending the film out on a high note and leaving the door open to further adventures for some of the characters.

For all its intricate plotting and nutty surprises, however, Sicario: Day of the Soldado can’t help but be saturated in sadness and tragedy due to the dire world the film inhabits. Its predominant settings — the foreboding desert, grim border communities, heavily militarized zones — are nowhere you’d want to be plunked down in real life if you could help it, and the human dilemma symbolically embodied in the character of young teen Miguel, to stay straight or become a killer, could not be more clear-cut or, ultimately, tragic.

Largely unknown in American film circles, director Sollima clearly learned a thing or three about suspense, action and staging big-scale crime drama through his work on such Italian TV series as La Suadra, Romanzo Crimnale and, most recently, the highly successful Gomorrah. His work here is confident, rugged and quite successful at expressing the ambiguities and contradictions that blur the line between good and bad in this sort of genre work.

Still, leading the way here is Sheridan, who has found much more to mine in the material he broke through with on Sicario just three years ago (Yellowstone, a 10-episode TV series he both wrote and directed, premiered this week). The way things are left here, there is certainly potential for much more from the intrinsic material and surviving characters if Sheridan cares to pursue it.

If anything, both Brolin and especially Del Toro register more strongly in their roles here than they did in the original; they have more to do and more moods to express, and together, they carry the film prodigiously. Playing younger, 16-year-old Moner shows a wide range as the unfortunate kidnapped member of a venal empire; she’s a vital presence who has the opportunity to show multiple sides to the teen’s drastically tested personality. Jeffrey Donovan brings a diverting light touch to one of Grave’s associates, and Rodriguez provokes uneasiness as the blank-faced young adolescent being inexorably drawn to the dark side, while Catherine Keener is wasted as a CIA higher-up who poses a stumbling block for Graver.

Rough real locations and Dariusz Wolski’s highly mobile cinematography provide ample atmosphere and verisimilitude. Deep and disturbing echoes of the original film’s overwhelming score by the late Johannson are to be heard in the new music by one of his proteges and creative colleagues, Hildur Gudnadottir.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Thunder Road Pictures, Black Label Media
Distributor: Sony
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Elijah Rodriguez, David Castaneda
Director: Stefano Sollima
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan, based on characters created by Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Ellen H. Schwartz, Richard Middleton, Erica Lee
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott
Editor: Matthew Newman
Music: Hildur Gudnadottir
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncall

Rated R, 117 minutes