I have always held Benicio Del Toro in high regard, even before his much-deserved Oscar win as Javier Rodriguez, the morally conflicted and ideologically compromised Mexican police officer in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Years before, in the mid nineties, he was sharp as a tack and a standout in The Usual Suspects, a wild maniac in the Gonzo adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But if you were to examine his career a bit closer, in more detail after his Oscar win, would it not feel less remarkable than you first thought? That isn't to say Benicio Del Toro is a poor actor. My opinion is just the opposite; Del Toro is one of the most interesting faces in film, whose ability to look simulataneously disinterested and fully engaged has always added that layer of mystery. He is a shadowy figure, both on and off the screen, who can make his mark just smiling in an elevator in a cameo (Somewhere), and his aura of slick coolness has seemed to carry him across a wasteland of absolute cinematic trash at times. No, I am not saying he is a bad actor, I am saying he is a fantastic actor in need of a comparable role.
Born in Puerto Rico in February 1967 to lawyer parents, Benicio Del Toro found acting at the University of California in San Diego. Like so many actors, the big break wasn't easy as Del Toro fought his way onto television shows like Miami Vice in the 80s. And if anyone else enjoyed Big Top Pee-Wee as a child, go back and watch it again; Benicio is the Duke, the boy with the dog face. Everyone gets their break somehow. Somehow Del Toro worked his way out of Pee-Wee and into the 1993 James Bond thriller Licence to Kill where he played a henchman. Throughout the early nineties Benicio worked hard to get noticed in pictures like The Indian Runner and Fearless. But finally, his break was Bryan Singer's critically-acclaimed The Usual Suspects. Playing part of an ensemble, Del Toro was the rattling, mumbling, hotshot thief Fenster amid a rogue's gallery of hoodlums. From here, Del Toro would only get more notice and accumulate more praise on his way to the top.
Del Toro starred in some more smaller films like The Funeral and Excess Baggage before portraying the laywer to one Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam's drug-fueled oddysey Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Almost unrecognizeable beneath a mustache and about fifty extra pounds, Del Toro held his own against the skittish fantacism of Johnny Depp's portrayal of the famed author. 2000 was Benicio's breakout year, with Traffic garnering deserved praise and, specifically, praise for his role as Rodriguez. What is so impressive about Del Toro's performance is it is the most memorable role in an ensemble cast including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, and a whole myriad of other fine actors. It was Del Toro who shone through.
Now look at Del Toro's career post Oscar. It's nothing along the lines of the disastrous career Cuba Gooding Jr's, although none really are, but Del Toro has still remained a presitigous and notable star even though very few of his pictures garner such acclaim. There was his follow up, The Hunted, a messy and forgettable chase film with - who else - Tommy Lee Jones. It's a film I genuinely hate. 21 Grams is a great film, and he is wonderful as a recovering alcoholic, and Sin City is, well, whatever. Sometimes it is easy to overrate this one. But the sap-filled melodramatic disaster of Things We Lost in the Fire played out like a duel between who would lose their clout after winning an Oscar faster, Halle Berry or Del Toro (answer: it was Berry). Then there was Che, a heavy, bloated, mostly bland two-part epic about the revolutionary. It had a tough time finding an audience.
Of course, the 2010 Joe Johnston adaptation of The Wolfman took the cake as a disaster, nearly stealing all of Del Toro's credibility. Nothing much needs to be said about this film anymore. Ever.
Now, it could be worse, I get that. But couldn't it have been so much better? I think so. I am genuinely excited for Savages next month, and once again it finds Del Toro on one side of a drug war. Now, of course, this time around the drug war in question is highly unrealistic and a little less likely to unfold that the very real, very raw events of Traffic. But he finds himself teamed up with Oliver Stone, a director who almost mirrors Del Toro in potential once met, and not quite met again. Not to say that either of them are bad, I want to make certain you get that point. All I am saying is, this cool cat, one of the coolest in Hollywood, could do so much better on a more consistent basis. Maybe I am being too hard on him, but sometimes it's worth it to want more out of certain actors. Sometimes, it's easier to expect nothing from Cuba Good.... er, some actors.