It was unexpected, but believe me when I tell you Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to the critically acclaimed 2015 Sicario, is simply the most intelligent and exciting action thriller of the summer. Going in I thought perhaps this would be kind of like They Call Me Mister Tibbs was to In the Heat of the Night — a serviceable but hardly worthy follow-up — but this film absolutely stands on its own, the promise of director Denis Villeneuve’s original more than met in a brilliant and timely must-see movie.

Part of the credit for this is the fact that Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the first one, is the screenwriter again and really takes these characters to new depths of complexity and, in this case, surprising humanity. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), the production also is lucky to have such a skilled and confident new director in Italian helmer Stefano Sollima (TV’s Gomorrah) who, if there is any justice, should be in high demand by Hollywood after this outing.

Emily Blunt who played the conflicted FBI agent caught up in the middle of a drug war on the Mexican border in Sicario, is not in this one, but Josh Brolin as CIA operative Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro as the mysterious lawyer-turned-assassin Alejandro are back, and they’re at odds. The story moves from an emphasis on battling drug trafficking to human trafficking as Mexican cartels learn a new way to make money in a time when many drugs are easier to get. Instead they are exporting terrorists across the border, which makes the CIA and U.S. government determined to create a new war between the cartels themselves in order to stop this dangerous new trend.

Graver is summoned to take on this assignment after returning from the Middle East, and he is simply a man who sees a moral victory only if it happens on your side. He enlists Alejandro, whose family was killed by the cartel, to kidnap Isabela (Isabela Moner), daughter of the drug kingpin in order to get things going. What he didn’t count on was a new level of humanity that infuses the previously cold-blooded killer, who now sees some of his own deceased daughter in Isabela and moves to find a way to get her to safety rather than make her collateral damage. He and Graver are at odds, and in some ways at war, with each other with differing views of the idea of humanity versus the need to win in this mission at any cost.

Sheridan’s tight script surprises at many turns, and Sollima squeezes every ounce of excitement out of it. This is a director who likes portraying criminals and their pursuers as various shades of gray, and it makes for a fascinating and complicated tale that has become even more timely in the week or so since I first saw it. Sequels usually offer diminishing returns, but not this one, which features perhaps the finest work by del Toro since his Oscar-winning turn in 2000’s Traffic. Brolin, more intense and world-weary than ever, is every bit his match in an instantly classic screen teaming. High marks also to Moner, excellent as the kidnap victim.

Catherine Keener as a CIA official is very fine in her scenes opposite Brolin, and particularly good in the supporting cast is Elijah Rodriguez, who plays the 14-year-old Miguel Hernandez, lured into the dark criminal world at much too young an age. Matthew Modine is the Defense Secretary, and Jeffrey Donavan as Steve Forsing is a returnee from the first film. This is a sensational pulse-pounding knockout.

Producers are Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward L. McDonnell and Basil Iwanyk. Sony Pictures releases it on June 29. Hope people find it in between all the summer blockbusters.

Do you plan to see Sicario: Day of the Soldado? Let us know what you think.