Subject: Benicio Monserrate Rafael del Toro Sánchez (a.k.a., Benicio del Toro), 42-year-old Puerto Rican actor
Date of Assessment: February 12, 2010
Positive Buzzwords: Subtle, restrained, captivating
Negative Buzzwords: Mumbling, marble-mouth, mrrphhh
The Case: I’ll be totally honest here and admit that I was pretty late to latch onto the Benicio del Toro phenomenon. He never really registered on my radar for his role in Big Top Peewee or while playing a James Bond villain (the youngest one in history) in License to Kill, and neither of these films were exactly worth re-exploring for the purposes for this column. It suffices to say that, when I first took notice of Benicio, it was when he starred opposite Alicia Silverstone in the ill-conceived caper Excess Baggage. Boy, did I feel sorry for him, but the fellow did make an impression (even over an unusually lackluster Christopher Walken) as the only salvageable aspect of the movie. So, I was prompted to catch up a bit and learned to appreciate del Toro’s promising character acting in films such as The Indian Runner, China Moon, and Swimming with Sharks. And (of course) he made quite an impression with The Usual Suspects, in which Benicio’s nearly unintelligible (and hilariously so) ex-con, Fred Fenster, diffused much of the tension as the pic’s main source of humour. In other ventures, del Toro made a few missteps — including an all-too-derivative The Hunted and what seemed an aimless, endless, drug binge in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — along his winding career path. However, these diversions were far outweighed by snappy yet understated performances, such as the intentionally lame-accented Frankie Four Fingers of Snatch fame. And anyone who’s seen Sin City won’t ever forget Benicio’s portrayal of Jack Rafferty as the embodiment of pure menace. Although this was a small role, which was largely spent getting his head shoved into a toilet or being turned into human Pez dispenser, del Toro transformed Jackie Boy into something quite memorable within a darkened ensemble of other well-known actors portraying a sea of otherwise shady characters.
And that’s where Benicio del Toro is most captivating — as part of an ensemble in a noirish, twisting tale. His Oscar-winning performance as a slightly duplicitous drug cop in Traffic stood out amongst heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Don Cheadle. Even more impressive was his brilliantly powerful portrayal of a recovering drug addict in 21 Grams, where he held his own alongside Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Such clear and convincing evidence leaves no doubt that Benicio del Toro is, quite simply, a great actor. Yet, when allowed to cultivate his own outside interests as a producer, things start to lose focus. Just look at his latest teaming with Steven Soderbergh, Che, which turned into a largely unmarketable four-and-a-half-hour epic; the film may very well have featured an excellently restrained performance but also culminated in del Toro famously walking out of a press conference when asked to defend his willing and knowing participation in obvious alterations of history. Currently, another one of del Toro’s pet projects, The Wolfman, will serve to provide some more insight on whether Benicio can maintain the actor within while also attempting to focus on the larger picture, so to speak, of a movie’s production. While I haven’t seen The Wolfman yet, the film’s trailers and troubled production aren’t looking too promising, but I’ll reserve full judgment until after the dust settles a bit. Personally, I’d like to see the guy just act, you know?
Prognosis: Let’s see how The Wolfman fares, and perhaps, with any luck at all, plans for Three Stooges will fall by the wayside. If Benicio del Toro can navigate his own return to acting in ensemble pics or even so-called highbrow films, there will be a renaissance of magnetic mumbling in a muliplex near you.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.