Sicario: Day of the Soldado ★★

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan revisits the murky world of Mexican drug cartels and American off-the-books lawmen in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” an exercise in movie machismo that can’t hold up to the original.

Sheridan serves up a scenario that feels like it was adapted from a Trump rally speech: A link between the Mexican cartels, immigrants crossing the border, and extremist Muslim suicide bombers. After we see one suicide bomber cornered by U.S. Border Patrol agents while attempting to cross into the States, the movie shows four more bombers hitting a Kansas City grocery store — bringing terrorism to the heartland.

Enter Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the grizzled CIA fixer from the first movie. He gets an off-the-books assignment is to set the cartels at each other’s throats, without the U.S. government’s fingerprints being seen. The Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) and Graver’s CIA boss (Catherine Keener) give him carte blanche to gather equipment and a crew — which includes his old partner Alejandro, the vengeance-seeking assassin, again played by Benicio Del Toro.

“You want to start a war with a king, kidnap a prince,” Graver says — or a princess. He launches a plan to abduct Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner, from the last “Transformers” movie), the 16-year-old daughter of one of the cartel bosses.

Like other recent plans involving the U.S./Mexico border, this one isn’t thought through too well — and when it goes south, Graver and Alejandro are left with an impossible ethical dilemma. And, if there’s anything we learned from the first “Sicario,” it’s that these guys lost their moral compasses a long time ago.

That’s the essential problem with this sequel: It’s missing the moral high ground that Emily Blunt’s FBI agent character brought to the first movie. It’s also missing the melancholy dread director Denis Villeneuve unearthed in every tense moment. Here, Italian director Stefano Sollima, who overcompensates with a lethal dose of macho posing from Del Toro, Brolin and Elijah Rodriguez, who plays Miguel, a Mexican-American kid who gets drawn into the cartel’s business plan.

Sheridan — recently relocated to Utah to make the New West melodrama “Yellowstone” for the Paramount Network — seems to be caught in the sequel trap of trying to outdo the predecessor, but losing the handle on what made it special. The sense of place that Sheridan invests in his best scripts (like “Hell or High Water” or “Wind River”) is absent, replaced by anonymous U.S. military warehouses and a vaguely stereotyped Mexico.

There are a few intriguing moments, mostly between Del Toro and Moner. But they are lost in a stew of blood, testosterone, repellent politics and sketchy plotting that leave “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” far behind its more thought-provoking predecessor.