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Some notes on the return of Benicio Del Toro

He never went away. And yet, he’s back.

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Bob Marshak; Richard Foreman

1. Last week, Lionsgate co-chair Patrick Wachsberger announced that his studio was developing a sequel to Sicario. The sequel will focus on Alejandro, a character played by Benicio Del Toro. This was surprising news. Sicario had only just opened in six theaters. (The film expands to wider release this weekend.) It earned big limited-release money, and it may yet have a healthy run at the box office — critics love the movie, Twitter loved the trailer — but it’s unusual to hear sequel talk for a bleak, arty, R-rated thriller with an Oscar-stuffed cast. Making things more confusing, Del Toro isn’t technically the lead in Sicario. Emily Blunt plays the straight-arrow protagonist, the first-person avatar who gets to be as confused as the audience. Del Toro plays a mystery man: a symbol of everything Blunt doesn’t understand about the drug war, Mexico, the heart of darkness, whatever.

2. Or maybe Del Toro is the star of the movie? “Sicario” means “hitman,” and Del Toro’s character is many things, but he isn’t not a hitman. Alejandro is the only character in Sicario to have an origin story; he gets a lot of the best action moments, and all his quotes sound like they belong on a dorm-room poster. (You could argue that the catharsis of Sicario belongs to him, although Sicario isn’t really a “catharsis” kind of movie.)

3. When you watch Sicario — which you should, tonight — you are left with two conclusions. First, Benicio Del Toro is not the star of Sicario, a movie entirely about his character. But second: Benicio Del Toro is the star of Sicario, a movie that buries him behind layers of low screen time and other famous-actor protagonists.

4. Speaking of Del Toro and casting news and sequels: Earlier this month, Del Toro appeared to confirm his participation in Star Wars: Episode VIII, the Star Wars movie coming out 20 months from now, not the Star Wars movie coming out two months from now, nor the Star Wars movie coming out 14 months from now. Del Toro said that he would like to play the villain, maybe. As with all things Star Wars, this could all be vapor. Our own Jedi wrangler Anthony Breznican wrote Del Toro’s involvement was a definite “maybe.”

5. Episode VIII‘s release date is May 26, 2017. That’s three weekends after the release date of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Two Disney space franchises in one month: Del Toro might be in both, or neither. Del Toro played The Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy, a one-scene role that Del Toro himself described as “kind of like a cameo.”

6. Actually, Del Toro played the Collector twice. He first appeared in the post-credits scene of the second Thor movie, The Dark World.

7. Fun fact: Thor 2 grossed $644.8 million worldwide, and Guardians 1 grossed $771.1 million. Those two movies are, by an insanely wide margin, the most profitable movies Del Toro has ever been involved in. Third place goes to Traffic, which grossed $200 million worldwide and won Del Toro an Oscar.

8. Besides Traffic, Del Toro appeared in two other movies in 2000. He was Franky Four Fingers in Snatch, and he was Not Ryan Phillippe in The Way of the Gun. 2000 was also when people started to rediscover 1998’s flopcult Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — possibly on DVD, probably on videotape. That is the kind of run that can make a distinctive actor into some kind of star. Fear and Loathing is an artsy drug film for stoners, and Traffic is an artsy drug film for the whole family, and Snatch is the movie the frat watched when they couldn’t find Jeff’s copy of Fight Club. The Way of the Gun is an outlier — an inconceivably underrated lithium western that got sold as the 198th wannabe Pulp Fiction ripoff. But I will make a wild guess that if you saw The Way of the Gun circa the turn of the millennium, you remembered Del Toro.

9. That run didn’t start nowhere. A few years earlier, Del Toro played Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects. Sample line of dialogue:

10. Fenster is kind of a gag. Del Toro delivers every line in an accent that sounds like Dustin Hoffman-as-Mumbles in Dick Tracy crossed with several different shopkeeper caricatures. Del Toro was the youngest actor in the Usual Suspects lineup, and Fenster should have been the least important character. On Inside the Actors’ Studio, Del Toro later said about Fenster: “Every line that he said didn’t really affect the plot.” So he asked director Bryan Singer if he could have some fun, and mumble his entire performance.

11. This could explain a lot about Del Toro. Maybe Fenster was an actor’s prankish exercise: Do something crazy with a non-essential character. But in that same Actors’ Studio interview, Del Toro proffers his own Fenster origin story. “Fenster is a German last name,” he says. “Which means ‘window.’ I felt like maybe he’s half-German, you know, half-Chinese and grew up in Harlem.”

12. Del Toro himself was born Puerto Rico. Raised there, too — until he moved to Pennsylvania at age 12. Del Toro won his Oscar for playing a Mexican; he was a Native American one year later in The Pledge. He has played one of the most famous Argentines in history, and one of the most infamous Colombians in history.

13. Some movies play explicitly off the idea of Del Toro’s indeterminate ancestry. Emily Blunt wonders where he’s from in Sicario. Way of the Gun believably casts him as a man from nowhere, the authentic yin to Phillippe’s bad-boy-from-a-boy-band yang. In The Wolfman, he is the son of Anthony Hopkins.

14. The movie tries to vaguely explain why Del Toro isn’t doing a British accent. It doesn’t have to. Hopkins and Del Toro have the same rhythms. For most of The Wolfman, they’re ponderous furniture. But then the movie demands them to do the whole Werewolf Transformation Dance, which never doesn’t look like the xenomorph in Alien krumping out of John Hurt’s stomach.

15. Speaking of indeterminate ancestry: Del Toro’s second big role was in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. The movie is a mess of weirdo casting. There’s Marlon Brando as a Friar, there’s Tom Selleck as King Ferdinand. Timothy Dalton was supposed to play Christopher Columbus, but instead they got Georges Corraface, a Greek-French actor who looks uncannily like Javier Bardem minus everything.

16. Del Toro is the only actual reason to see the movie, but he’s a big reason. He plays a young Spaniard who joins up with Columbus; he wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his father, an actual historical figure. He quickly becomes the film’s Big Bad. He leads a mutiny. He wants to cut off Columbus’ head. They discover America. Columbus leaves a small colony behind, including Del Toro and his father. Del Toro kills another Spaniard. His father chastises him: “Now they know that we’re not gods.” Del Toro: “I always knew you weren’t a god.” He kills his father. He anoints himself the Immortan Joe god-king of proto-America. He finally gets stabbed — a spear in the chest — and he runs to the ocean, dying under the crashing waves. Because this is a very bad, very loopy movie, he dies wearing a metal-studded leather vest and gold wrist-bling: He looks uncannily like a man doing Warriors cosplay. (You can watch him here, at around 1:13.)

17. Two conclusions you can draw from watching Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. First, Del Toro is very good at being very good in very bad movies. Second, Del Toro’s character — who is in no way based on anything remotely factual —is inadvertently one of the most accurate, lacerating depictions of the European settlement of the Americas. American history trends toward hagiography. Del Toro doesn’t do hagiography. Actors can’t compose a narrative out of their careers, but you can read his role in Columbus as a prologue to Traffic and Che and Sicario. Like, Josh Brolin in Sicario is a variation of Del Toro in Columbus: a vision of power and Manifest Destiny run amok.

18. Del Toro’s first big role was in Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton’s second and last James Bond movie. Twenty-one when he made the movie, Del Toro is generally credited as the Youngest Bond Henchman. There is some early typecasting here: Licence to Kill is 007’s Drug Movie. Del Toro is the chief enforcer for Sanchez, the baddest drug dealer south of the border. Sanchez is from “The Republic of Isthmus,” one of those faux-Colombia coke-topias that proliferated in the ’80s. If America were fascist, then Traffic would be Licence to Kill: propaganda that favors white-dude intervention. Del Toro is already Del Toro. Witness:

19. Licence to Kill is a perfect snapshot of the moment in history when you could have easily confused Benicio Del Toro with Brad Pitt. That is part of the Del Toro mystique: He can be incredibly handsome, and he can be a living incarnation of Nick Nolte’s mugshot.

20. What happened after that brilliant run at the turn of the millennium? Del Toro earned another Oscar nomination for 21 Grams, one of the single most unpleasant experiences you can pay for. Del Toro stars opposite Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. He’s a former drug addict struggling towards redemption. Because this is an Alejandro G. Iñárritu movie, he accidentally kills three people in a car accident: a man, and two children. They’re the husband and children of Naomi Watts. Watts grieves — because this is an Iñárritu movie, she’s also a drug addict. The dead husband’s heart goes to Sean Penn, and boy oh boy, wait till you see what Iñárritu does with the symbolism of a heart transplant.

21. 21 Grams is epidemic of a whole era of serious indie movies filled with actors making a show of smearing dirt across their moisturized pores, chasing that Monster’s Ball Oscar. 21 Grams only really works when Del Toro’s onscreen. It’s not that he’s “believable,” because nothing in 21 Grams is believable. It’s the opposite of the Fenster strategy: In a role that could’ve called for histrionics —in a movie filled with ACT-TING! — Del Toro goes quiet.

22. #NoDisrespectToNaomiWatts #AllDisrespectToSeanPenn

23. Speaking of movies that only really work when Del Toro’s onscreen: Traffic has aged weird. So much of its look and feel got absorbed into the firmament. (Soderbergh’s decision to color-code the cinematography for every location felt new in 2000; a few years later, The O.C. was color-coding Chino as a monochrome wasteland.) Traffic would almost certainly get made as a miniseries today. As it is, the non-Del Toro segments feel undercooked: Michael Douglas has to play the version of America that is Shocked, Shocked to discover that rich white kids do drugs; Catherine Zeta-Jones is in a wild-and-crazy Lifetime movie, I Married a Druglord!

24. None of that matters, because Traffic was the first perfected Del Toro delivery system. As an everyday cop in Mexico, Del Toro plays every variation of knowing cynicism. He’s casually corrupt, fleecing dumb American tourists. But he’s also in way over his head — meeting cartel lords and corrupt generals, adrift in a world that lack any helpful binary definitions of good and evil. Del Toro gets the movie’s one Oscar moment, a rueful but optimistic speech about the possibility of America-Mexico cooperation and the crucial importance of baseball. He gives this speech while swimming in a family pool:

25. That scene is both a parody of the Big Oscar Speech (the first cut to the grimacing FBI agents in the pool is Traffic‘s biggest laugh) and one of the best Big Oscar Speeches, full stop.

26. Del Toro had fun after Traffic. He was The Hunted, a movie where he keeps trying to stab Tommy Lee Jones. (He’s more or less playing Rambo; his actual name is “Aaron Hallam.”) As in Sicario, Del Toro both is and is not the star of The Hunted. He’s the most interesting character; the movie starts with him; the whole kickstart of the plot is his character suffering PTSD from Kosovo. But the movie turns him into a wandering force of nature, and spends more time focusing on Tommy Lee Jones, who’s basically doing a bored variation of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

27. Speaking of bored variations of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive: Jones headlined an unexpected sequel to The Fugitive, called U.S. Marshals, co-starring Wesley Snipes as a fugitive-ier fugitive and Robert Downey Jr. in his crazy period. A sequel to Sicario makes about as much sense as U.S. Marshals — and yet, for some reason, U.S. Marshals always seems to be on TV.

28. If it feels like Del Toro disappeared, or receded, then it’s probably because you didn’t see Che, a double-movie about the Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Che was Del Toro’s passion project, a film he developed for years. At one time, it was going to be directed by Terrence Malick — and you can still spot Malick in Che, especially in the second half, where every scene takes place in some new abstraction of Nature.

29. Instead, Malick made The New World, a movie that prints the swoony legend about the European settlement of the Americas. The New World is one of my favorite films, period. It has nothing to say about politics, and everything to say about the cosmic communion of man and nature and woman and time and space and the variable symbolic qualities of Colin Farrell’s stubble versus Christian Bale’s beard. But try to imagine Che Guevara watching The New World, and the movie starts to feel like imperialist propaganda refracted through WB soap opera.

30. Che was Del Toro’s passion project. That doesn’t mean it was a work-for-hire gig for eventual director Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh spent a long time researching Guevara. He believed passionately that Che needed to be two movies, comprising a rough rise-and-fall arc. The first movie focuses most prominently on Guevara in Cuba, ending at the point of his greatest triumph; the second film skips to his arrival in Bolivia, and tracks his spiral toward execution. Swelling one movie to two movies makes producers nervous —and then Soderbergh decided that he didn’t want his actors to spend Che speaking English in accented Spanish. So: Che would be half-an-hour longer than Lawrence of Arabia, and it would be entirely subtitled, and it would spend at least half its running time on the running bummer of the Bolivian campaign.

31. Che could have only worked as a cinematic event: A must-see curiosity, buffered by critical accolades and some very creative marketing. None of that happened. The films received actual mixed reviews. It was on year-end best lists, and it was hated. (Our own Owen Gleiberman gave the first half a B+ and the second half a C.) The film was not a success. Talking to the Guardian one year later, Soderbergh made the movie sound like an ordeal. “For a year after we finished shooting,” he said, “I would still wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not shooting that film.'”

32. What does Del Toro think of Che? The movie is a very strange result for a passion project. Del Toro is playing one of the most famous people of the 20th century — a firebrand, a revolutionary, a Marxist t-shirt model. It feels like it should be some kind of showy-biopic Oscar role: Jamie Foxx doing Ray, or Sean Penn doing Milk, or Daniel Day-Lewis doing anything. But Del Toro, and the movie around him, is still, quiet, curious. Most biopics print the legend of their subjects: They compose narratives; they create speeches; they lie. It feels like, with Che, Soderbergh and Del Toro didn’t want to lie. The second film is a long, chronological trudge, with dates flashing on the screen. Che spent 341 days in Bolivia. I mean it as a compliment that the second half of Che feels twice as long.

33. Have you seen Che? You should. It is maybe the most important boring movie made in the last 10 years. At times, the movie seems to be pitched directly to a hardcore Che fanbase — a movie that expects you to clap when Celia Sanchez shows up onscreen. But Che also goes out of its way to reintroduce all the hallmark moments of the Che legend: First meeting with Fidel; Battle of Santa Clara; Speech to the UN; sneaking into Bolivia undercover as a bald man.

34. This is a roundabout way of saying that Che is confusing to newcomers and frustrating for experts. But the movie’s accomplishment is real. It doesn’t give you the legend, and it doesn’t destroy the legend like some trendy anti-biopics. It cares — really cares — about the simple process of being Che. This makes sense: Soderbergh is our most process-oriented of directors, a workaholic who seems to prefer television at least partially because the shooting schedule is longer. In the first half of Che, he builds gradually to Che’s big speech to the UN. That might be the single least important part of either movie: Soderbergh prefers to show Del Toro, out in the forest, slowly gathering people into a revolution.

35. There’s a running thing in Che that captures something ineffable about the man and the man who played him. Whenever Guevara shows up in a village, he examines the locals for signs of infection and illness. Guevara was a doctor, and an outsider. It can feel sometimes like Del Toro is the same way onscreen: An element that doesn’t fit in, but also someone who can fix what’s broken.

36. Did you know that Soderbergh worked on The Hunger Games? He filmed some second-unit stuff. Gary Ross credits him for filming much of the District 11 riot scene. You remember: The scene when an underclass mob revolts against their totalitarian dictatorship, inspired by a charismatic revolutionary leader? You hear that, and you hope maybe 1 in 10 kids who watch The Hunger Games seek out Che, if only because they want to know what a real revolution is.

37. Was Del Toro bummed about Che? He received a 10-minute standing ovation when the movie played in Havana. If Del Toro is half the Del Toro we think he is, then maybe he loves how it turned out. Most actors want their passion projects to be successful, to win Oscars. Maybe he’s satisfied that his passion project became an expensive, subtitled, four-hour-plus downer art film.

38. After Che came The Wolfman. The film is bleak, art-directed to hell, and quicksand-slow. (For some reason, it cost $150 million.) If it was a paycheck role, then you have to credit Del Toro for earning easy money in the weirdest way possible.

39. The same year, Del Toro played himself in Somewhere, which IMHO is the second most important boring movie of the last 10 years. Somewhere is Sofia Coppola remaking Lost in Translation with Stephen Dorff instead of Bill Murray and a fragile father-daughter relationship instead of a desperately yearning will-they-or-won’t-they romance. Somewhere is set largely inside of the Chateau Marmont, a symbol of Hollywood luxury but also Lohan-era debauchery: The best and most offensive thing about Somewhere is how Coppola seems to think that there’s nothing weird about filming a plotless art film inside such a profound monument to 1-percenter decadence. Without question, it’s my favorite Sofia Coppola movie.

40. Benicio Del Toro is in two shots of Somewhere. We don’t immediately realize it’s him. He’s introduced Draper-style, with his back to the camera.

Once you know it’s him, you could spend hours staring at that shot. What is he looking at, you think? That cute girl’s shoulder? The normal people talking — while he, celebrity, stands alone? I prefer to think he’s looking in the mirror.

41. He walks into an elevator; Stephen Dorff follows after him. It’s never entirely clear what kind of actor Stephen Dorff is playing in Somewhere — the movie places him as some kind of action hero playboy, but the movie also seems to take place in some eternal pre-DiCaprio moment before the Internet and Entourages. But we know the status dynamic in that elevator right away, because Dorff does a double-take to end all double-takes. Even he, celebrity, is starstruck by Del Toro.

42. This strikes me as another prime example of the Del Toro mystique. You imagine him in a room with people more famous than he is — and you can only imagine that those people feel very nervous, in awe, scared that they won’t measure up.

43. Dorff steadies himself, tries to casually say “Hey” to Del Toro. Del Toro looks up. “Hey,” he says. There’s a long pause: Maybe that’s all he gets. Then: “What room you in?” Del Toro asks. Dorff says 59. Del Toro considers that. “I met Bono in 59.” And then they stare up at the ceiling for a pregnant eternal pause.

44. Somewhere is a great film because Coppola uses the loneliness of celebrity as a metaphor for the loneliness of humanity. This is impossibly privileged, but it also works. (Hey, Hamlet was a prince.) So this elevator interaction between two celebrities feels like a hyperbolization of every elevator interaction — and, maybe, every attempt at human connection. This strikes me as a strategy not unfamiliar to Del Toro, who is simultaneously a larger than life persona with crazy accents and a recessive performer who communicates a lot with a dead-eyed stare. (Del Toro is why the first half of Che doesn’t work as well as the second half. Che: Part 1 is supposed to be about a normal man becoming a legend — but Del Toro is already the incarnation of a legend.)

45. When Dorff gets out of the elevator, he says goodbye to Del Toro. We don’t see him, but we hear him. Predictably, what he says is inscrutable to human ears. For the longest time, I thought Del Toro said “Great Movies!” — as in, “Hey man, you make great movies, or at least that’s what actors are supposed to say to each other when they meet at the Marmont.” The Netflix subtitles inform me that he is actually saying: “Stay Loose.” This is another Del Toro strategy, of course: When he speaks incoherently, you can Rorschach his musings into myth.

46. Speaking of myth: Del Toro’s personal life doesn’t come up much, if at all. But one of the hot gossip items of the mid-2000s placed him and Scarlett Johansson together in a Chateau Marmont elevator, doing things not often done in an elevator. Somewhere is either a direct reference to this, or proof that Benicio Del Toro lives at some nexus point of reality where everything starts to feel like a reference back to him.

47. Del Toro was in Savages in 2012, playing a cartel enforcer named Lado. You could read Lado as the older version of his Bond henchman, if you want. Del Toro went far afield for a little while — playing a Native American in a French movie, directing a segment of 7 Days in Havana. Then came The Collector, and a fine supporting turn in Inherent Vice. I don’t want to pull too many continuity strands here, but in both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Inherent Vice, Del Toro plays the attorney mentor-enabler to the main character. You can never cast Del Toro as the guy who isn’t world-weary. Maybe it’s those sunken eyes.

48. Also last year, Del Toro played Pablo Escobar in Escobar: Paradise Lost. Yet again, Del Toro both is and isn’t the star. His character’s name is in the title, and he’s the driving force, and he’s freaking Pablo Escobar — but Paradise Lost also plays the Last King of Scotland card, casting Josh Hutcherson as the white-dude avatar stuck in a milieu of lawlessness and drugs and violence and every other south-of-the-border trope you can come up with.

49. Somewhere in his quiet post-Che period, Del Toro was the hot rumor for the villain role in Star Trek Into Darkness. At the time, everyone generally agreed that he was up for the part of Khan. This made sense, sort of. The part of Khan was created by Ricardo Montalban, a Hispanic actor born in Mexico (but partially raised in the U.S.) And if you squint a bit, Khan’s outfit in Wrath of Khan looks uncannily modeled along the same lines as Del Toro’s white-god phase in Christopher Columbus. Of course, Khan himself was supposed to be vaguely Indian, possibly Sikh, generally some undefinable non-white — which, again, would have made sense for Del Toro. Instead they went with Benedict Cumberbatch.

50. Bizarrely, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t too different from Del Toro’s role in Sicario. They’re both enforcers on a vengeance kick; they both have that same post-9/11 retro-Vietnam DNA, the Government Agent Run Amok.

51. The best and most depressing thing about Sicario is how it resonates back through Del Toro’s career. In Traffic, he was a hopeful young man, aware of the impossibility of ending the drug war but optimistic in his belief in genuine change. In Che, we track another hopeful young man, see his actual success — and then see his failure. In Sicario, the more we find out about Del Toro, the more we lose all capability for hope. Del Toro can be funny — his freakouts in Fear and Loathing, his preening in Guardians of the Galaxy — but even his amusing characters share a brutal cynicism, a sense that the only law is the jungle. Somehow, no matter how world-weary you thought Del Toro was before, Sicario finds some new sub-basement of weariness. The movie is Cormac McCarthy bleak and gets off on its own nihilism: kids will love it, and adults will find it thrilling, but there’s something a bit cartoony about it. It’s the first movie to treat Del Toro’s unique talents as superpowers.

52. A sequel would be fun — and maybe it’s time for Del Toro to get his own franchise, some sort of drug-war variation of the Bourne films. Worse actors have gotten bigger roles in more expensive movies. Star Wars VIII could only be better with Del Toro.

53. But my favorite Del Toro performance is under minute long, and it comes courtesy of TMZ. A cameraguy catches Del Toro in a valet stand, walking with an old man with a shock of white hair circulating a bald head. The camera is on Del Toro, but you can see the old man look nervously at the camera and turn away. Del Toro does a double take… and lets out a guffaw. Then he turns back to the camera and says “Heads up, man!” — the cameraman was about to step on something.

The man is Terrence Malick, who has spent most of his life trying to not be photographed. The best thing about this video isn’t that Del Toro clearly sees Malick running away from the camera and thinks it’s hilarious. The best thing is that, once Malick is offscreen, Del Toro walks back toward him, guiding the cameraman to one of the single most important moments of video he will ever shoot. I have to believe this was a conscious choice — that Del Toro was aware of the momentousness of this occasion. Or maybe he just wanted to mess with Malick.

54. The TMZ cameraman doesn’t realize who Terrence Malick is. They keep focusing on Del Toro. Later, though, they would proudly trumpet the video as a Holy Grail Malick sighting. For once, Del Toro definitely isn’t the star of his own movie. He’s never looked happier.