Star Wattage: Del Toro Lights It Up
In Sicario 2: Soldado Benicio Del Toro once again highlights his unique cinematic presence.
What makes a star? Not fleeting, fame today, gone tomorrow celebrity. But the element that propels actors into the rarefied world of career longevity and a permanent place in popular culture. It’s something that exists beyond box office success, or the prestige of the awards season. It can also be an indefinable quality, its nuances changing with each actor. Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Benicio Del Toro has it.
For three decades, the Puerto Rican-born actor has grown into one of the most distinctive screen presences, frequently compared – not without good reason – to the laconic style of Robert Mitchum. (And like that wayward star, Del is unconventionally attractive.) In his best performances, Del Toro gradually appears before us, rather than blazing his way through a scene. Take his Academy Award-winning role as a Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000). He is a quiet soul, unbending in the face of institutionalised corruption and, as a result, the film’s conscience. Yet his performance is never showy, the compassion he elicits from us is gained as much from his expressions as the few words he speaks.
Over the years, Del Toro has appeared in several films that deal with the complex issue of drugs trafficking between central America and the US, from Traffic and Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012) to playing the notorious Colombian kingpin in Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014). His most charismatic turn in this world, however, finds him playing a fictional member of the Medellin clan in Sicario (2015), Denis Villeneuve’s impressive account of the battle between America’s drug enforcement agencies and the gangs waging war just beneath the country’s southern border. Del Toro may not have played the lead in Villeneuve’s film, but he walked away with it. His performance is typically more slow-burn than explosive, gradually building in intensity until it’s impossible to look at anyone else on the screen.
Sicario’s screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has planned a trilogy of films detailing the increasingly technologized battle for the control of the illegal drugs business and in Sicario 2: Soldado Del Toro’s avenging angel takes centre stage. No longer the secret weapon of Josh Brolin’s ruthless CIA agent, Del Toro’s Alejandro becomes the vanguard of an all-out war against the Mexican drug barons. But like so many of the roles the actor has played, Del Toro brings moral ambiguity to bear on Alejandro’s journey.
The actor’s ascendancy to the Hollywood A-list began in the late 1980s. After brief roles in Madonna’s 'La Isla Bonita' video and an episode of Michael Mann’s era-defining Miami Vice (both 1987), Del Toro made his feature debut as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee Wee (1989), followed by a notable role as Bond villain Robert Davi’s henchman in Licence to Kill (1989).
Subsequent performances in Sean Penn’s 1991 directorial debut The Indian Runner, the Spanish satire Golden Balls, Peter Weir’s Fearless (both 1993) and Swimming with Sharks (1994), playing a former assistant to Kevin Spacey’s sadistic studio exec, saw Del Toro expand his range. But it was his bizarre turn as Fenster in Bryan Singer’s breakout hit The Usual Suspects (1995) that established him. The most eccentric member of a gang of crooks thrown together by a mysterious criminal mastermind, Del Toro’s character may not have had significant screen time but his performance, particularly in the hilarious line-up sequence, raised his profile significantly.
Between Fenster and Traffic’s Javier Rodrieguez, Del Toro impressed in his artist friend Julien Schnabel’s feature debut Basquiat (1996), added weight to Abel Ferrara’s brilliant but despairing period gangster drama The Funeral (1996) and dabbled in more mainstream fare such as Tony Scott’s The Fan (1996) and the Alicia Silverstone vehicle Excess Baggage (1997). But it was his companion to Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s madcap and ultimately draining Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) that Del Toro revealed the lengths he was willing to go to in order to realise a character. He piled on weight to play Dr. Gonzo and his performance veers from the strange to outrageous. A decade later, he would undergo a similar transformation to play Ernesto Che Guevara in Soderbergh’s two-part biopic of the South American revolutionary. It remains one of his best roles, not because Del Toro makes Che the larger than life personality immortalised by Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph, but because he manages to humanise him, thus making his actions and achievements all the more extraordinary.
Del Toro’s finest performances, which include his fallen preacher in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2001) and Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (2013), in which he stars opposite the equally charismatic Mathieu Amalric, combine the physical with the emotional. He has used his physicality to impose, but has also proven adept at employing it to accentuate his vulnerability.
(Del Toro’s unique looks and distinctive style have also found him gracing countless covers of style magazines.) And as his roles over the last year have shown, he is as much in demand at the heart of mainstream cinema as he is in more offbeat dramas. Alongside Sicario 2: Soldado, Del Toro played DJ in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and after appearing in the end credits teaser of Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) he briefly returned to the role of The Collector in Avengers: Infinity War. Del Toro didn’t need to tone down his style to play those roles. They required something different, almost otherworldly. A quality that only a star has.
Sicario 2: Soldado
In Sicario 2: Soldado, the drug war on the US/Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border.
To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) reteams with the mercurial Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).
Sicario 2: Soldado plays in our cinemas from Friday 29 June