Benicio Del Toro’s Fine Taste in Roles

In the grand scheme of movies, I appreciate good direction, I take notice of strong writing, but I’m enthralled by quality acting.

I have a ton of favorite performers, but I most appreciate those who specialize in character acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, may he rest in peace, is an all-timer on that list, as he could take on any role, no matter how small, and make it into something memorable.

Another name on that list is Benicio Del Toro. Unlike PSH and other typical character actors, Del Toro is more traditionally handsome, which has worked in his favor by opening his career up to roles that might otherwise not have been offered. To his credit, Del Toro has capitalized on his unique opportunity by not only choosing great roles in excellent scripts, but also by being unafraid to elevate his characters through unconventional acting choices.

It’s a flawed exercise to try to talk in generalities about what makes Del Toro a great actor, given that his performances are all about specifics. With that in mind, I’ve assembled a collection of my personal favorite Del Toro roles:

  • Sicario (2015)

<An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by a government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.>

In my opinion, Sicario is one of the most well-made movies of the last decade. The film gets the action right, but more importantly it leaves plenty of space between the exhilarating moments to build tension and develop character, enabling us as viewers to appreciate what’s at stake.

The credit for the film’s success goes to the man behind the camera, director Denis Villeneuve, who’s so talented that moviegoers have been forced to learn how to pronounce his French-Canadian name (Den-ee Vill-en-oove) in order to recommend his other work (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Dune) to friends.

Though Villeneuve has an extraordinary ability to construct a film on a grand scale, he never neglects his actors in the process. Sicario lives and dies on its three lead performances, and Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt, and Benicio Del Toro are all at their very best as characters with a vaguely common goal, but who approach it from wildly different perspectives.

With Del Toro in particular, he steals numerous scenes throughout the movie not by doing more, but by doing less. In this case, the choice for his character to say less came during the pre-production process before the final script was locked, when Del Toro himself suggested the change to his character.

From the Trivia section on the IMDb page.

Watch the scene below and consider whether it would’ve worked better had Del Toro’s character been more open with Blunt’s. To me, it’s no contest – this version works perfectly.

In a movie with a fair number of good lines, Del Toro has the best one, which comes in another scene where Blunt is probing him for information, and he wants to gently shut her down: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, we’ll just keep an eye on the time.”

  • The Usual Suspects (1995)

<A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which began when five criminals met at a seemingly random police lineup.>

This film is a consensus classic, due to its ability to pull off an engaging plot, and a thrilling ending. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the fun comes from not knowing how it ends, so I won’t say anything more about the film’s story beats.

Directed effectively by Bryan Singer (X-Men, the X-Men Cinematic Universe), it’s actually the film’s plot and acting that give it life; to the surprise of no one, the villainous five-man crew, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, and Benicio Del Toro, are a murderer’s row of entertainment.

At the core of good acting is an ability to synthesize a character to figure out how they think, how they live, and even how they speak; in The Usual Suspects, Del Toro’s oddball role is slippery, and he settles on an accent that has no discernable country of origin and is oftentimes difficult to understand, but which wholly encapsulates the character and fits into the movie.

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

<An oddball journalist and his psychopathic lawyer travel to Las Vegas for a series of psychedelic escapades.>

This film is the embodiment of chaos, which is perfect given it’s based on a lightly fictionalized book of the same name by gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, who used his own life as the subject.

Directed by the incomparable Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, 12 Monkeys), his irreverent style is an exquisite pairing for this story, as oftentimes the characters themselves aren’t sure what’s real and what’s not.

Starring Johnny Depp and flanked by Benicio Del Toro, the story is told through the haze of the two characters’ heavy drug use, which causes the film’s tone to shift wildly between absurdity and realism, as the effects of the various narcotics ebb and flow on their combined consciousness.

Though Depp’s manic lead performance drives the movie forward, Del Toro’s portrayal of his unhinged sidekick gives Depp something to bounce off of, and together the two shine brighter than they would’ve alone.

  • Inherent Vice (2014)

<In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.>

My impression is that this film has been underseen, despite it being hilarious and overdelivering on entertainment. Helmed by one of the best writer/directors working today, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, The Master), the film’s high quality really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in this gem, and he gives life to the film through his spirited depiction of a strung-out private investigator who wants to do good but is in over his head and can’t seem to get out of his own way.

As for the rest of the cast, because of PTA’s recognized greatness as a filmmaker, he’s able to get fantastic actors to come by his sets and shoot tiny roles in his films because they badly want to work with him. In Inherent Vice, the actors who qualify for this list include the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and Benicio Del Toro.

Though Del Toro is on screen for only a few minutes, he still manages to leave a hilarious impression.

  • Snatch (2000)

<Unscrupulous boxing promoters, violent bookmakers, a Russian gangster, incompetent amateur robbers and supposedly Jewish jewelers fight to track down a priceless stolen diamond.>

At his best, the British gangster films of writer/director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Rocknrolla) are fast-talking, violent, and funny as hell.

Snatch is in the mix as Ritchie’s best work, but that’s what happens when the ensemble includes actors like Jason Statham as a man creating as many problems as he solves, Brad Pitt as a manic Irishman who wields disorder as a weapon, and Benicio Del Toro as a gambling addict and thief.

As always, Del Toro’s performance finds a way to stand above, even in a movie brimming with stand outs.

  • Sin City (2005)

<An explosion of the dark and miserable Basin City and three of its residents, all of whom are caught up in violent corruption.>

I love when a director presents a film in a unique looking way, and Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Til Dawn, Desperado) did just that with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s stylized graphic novel, Sin City. The starkly black and white visual appearance (with a few colorful exceptions) is the calling card of the movie, and it enables the film to be easily recalled long after seeing it.

The movie isn’t just style though, as Rodriguez incorporates a wealth of substance from Miller’s source material in his shooting script, which becomes gripping suspense and shocking moments.

For his part, Benicio Del Toro could’ve capably played many of the larger roles in this movie, but he makes the most of his few minutes onscreen as a small-time lowlife. Though this type of villainous character is far from unfamiliar to Del Toro’s acting oeuvre, the heavy prosthetics glued to his face helped his disappearance into the role.

  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor the Dark World (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

<An assortment of films from Marvel Studios.>

The rise of the modern behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is nothing short of astounding, given its humble beginnings in 2008.

The credit goes to the president and visionary of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, who has never been afraid to go after the biggest names in entertainment for his films, including minor acting roles.

Enter Benicio Del Toro, who has now lightly appeared in three films (and one animated television episode) playing a truly bizarre other-worldly figure known as “The Collector”. Though the backstory of the character is still largely unexplained (and it’s not totally clear what Marvel’s plans are for him long-term), these days no studio pays better, so as long as the checks keep clearing, I expect Del Toro to keep showing up.

Nobody asked, but from where I stand, “The Collector” has been around long enough that he’s well-positioned to take on a full-fledged main role in a future Marvel film. Paging Mr. Feige …

  • The French Dispatch (2021)

<A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional twentieth century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in “The French Dispatch Magazine.“>

“This film is impeccably shot, laced with quick wit, and as soon as it ended I was ready to watch it again”, is a phrase that could be uttered in regard to anything by writer/director Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Rushmore), but even for him The French Dispatch still finds a way to be special.

Anderson is known for executing on ambitious projects that no other director would think of, let alone attempt, and this film is no exception. Structured as if it were an issue of The New Yorker, the film is a collection of short stories, but with a meta component that it’s also about the behind-the-scenes at the magazine as the issue itself is being assembled. It’s both showing and telling.

Anderson is also well-known for putting together recognizable ensemble casts, and with so many self-contained stories in this film, this is his largest company of actors yet, and it includes: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Lea Seydoux, Benicio Del Toro, and so many more.

Del Toro factors into the film as the main character of the first of the three longer stories that make up the middle of the film, with his being titled “The Concrete Masterpiece”. I don’t want to give away any specifics as to what his story is about, but it’s always a treat when Del Toro plays a character who goes against type.

Don’t worry, this clip includes none of the context that could spoil the story.

So, there it is, a list of my favorite Benicio Del Toro roles. It also happens to double as an incomplete list of my favorite films. I guess this was a bit of a two-for-one.

I know Del Toro has lots more great roles out there, but if it wasn’t included above, it means I’ve yet to see it; only sensible to save a few delights for the future, right?

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