The last time we saw Benicio Del Toro on screen he was starring in Sicario as a mercenary who collected a handsome paycheque while quenching his thirst for revenge against drug cartel leaders.
He was vicious and malicious, a supreme badass doing the right thing for the completely wrong reason.
That movie’s dark and gritty examination of the drug-fuelled Mexico-U.S. border war stands in stark contrast to his new movie, the optimistically titled A Perfect Day.
“I do believe there is hope in A Perfect Day,” he says. “I agree with you that Sicario is hopeless but in this one there is hope. I was finishing A Perfect Day when I went into Sicario. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Sicario was interesting, because it was the dark side of the coin.”
Set in 1990s Balkans, Del Toro plays Mambrú, a misfit aid worker whose team (played by Tim Robbins and Olga Kurylenko among others) begin their day in the former Yugoslavia trying to remove a bloated corpse dumped in a well to contaminate the water.
The task is complicated by United Nations bureaucracy and the lack of a strong enough rope forcing the crew to navigate not only landmine-ridden roads but their own complicated relationships in search of a solution.
Director Fernando León de Aranoa calls Del Toro the centerpiece of the film, adding, “Working with him means working with a creative partner.”
“There are some ideas that can come from anywhere that are golden,” Del Toro says on improvising on set. “I would like to say that I wish I could recognize good ideas when they are out there whether they come from another actor or they come from myself.
“If there is a good idea I do believe that if you don’t take advantage of it while you are making the film it’ll be gone forever. If there is a good idea I am game to explore.”
Del Toro, who is currently filming Star Wars: Episode VIII, says the script appealed to him because, it was about, “people trying to do good and just how complicated it can get, but with elements of humour…. It was like a riddle to solve,” he says.
“Can the movie balance these two things? I think it does. The darkness of the war and the job with the humour.”
One point of reference was Robert Altman’s black comedy M*A*S*H about medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.
The actor says he discussed the 1970 movie, “with the director and Tim Robbins a little bit but the other film we talked about was No Man’s Land by Danis Tanović. It takes place in that part of the world and deals with the comedy and the darkness. The comedy in a ridiculous way.”
More importantly, he met with his character’s real-life counterparts.
“I had met some aid workers and I will tell you, they all have a good sense of humour. They tell you some dark stories but they do have a sense of humour. It’s a way of dealing with the darkness of their experiences and the pain.
“At the end of the day when you do a movie like this you learn about how valuable these people are. How courageous they are. Aid workers. Doctors Without Borders. How much energy and compassion for humans they have.”
Traditional wisdom has it that January is a dumping ground for bad movies.
“Everyone is broke after shelling out for Christmas presents,” the studios say. “The weather is crappy and anyone leaving the house is going to the gym instead of the movies,” complain the suits.
That’s why clunkers like One for the Money, a Katherine Heigl crime drama with a two per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating and Season of the Witch — which saw Nicolas Cage go all medieval on the forces of evil and strain his credibility as an actor — made the lives of critics and audiences miserable on long, cold winter nights in bygone Januarys. Why waste good movies when no one was likely to go?
Years ago studios threw the odd quality film into the January mix — Traffic, Good Will Hunting, Before Sunrise, Dr. Strangelove and Silence of the Lambs—but every good movie like Matinee (92 per cent on RT) was balanced out with a stinker like Body of Evidence and its paltry six per cent rating.
There is still that yin and yang as last week’s releases of The Boy Next Door and Mortdecai (two movies that will decorate Worst Of the Year lists) proves, but the tide seems to be changing. Perhaps that’s why Project Almanac, a time-travel drama from producer Michael Bay, moved from a prime July release date to the barren January slate. Surely Bay, as savvy a player as Hollywood has, wouldn’t allow his movie to be tossed out with the trash.
The reason given for the schedule move was that Bay himself wanted to sprinkle some of his Transformers’ fairy dust to pump up the film’s appeal to young audiences. But it’s also apparent that a micro-budget movie like Project Almanac, even with Bay’s name attached, could get lost in a summer filled with large-scale offerings like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so why not release in a less crowded, but increasingly profitable field?
What used to be a time to fill screens with borderline cheesefests has become a viable month to release a movie.
Last year big crowds braved the polar vortex to help the Kevin Hart comedy Ride Along set a January opening record. This year the Oscar-nominated Selma and Still Alice have opened wide in a month usually reserved for Golden Raspberry winners. Perhaps the biggest story of 2015 so far is the success of Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic, American Sniper, which has raked in upwards of $170 million in just two weeks. The success of that film is as strong an indicator as Hollywood needs that January is no longer a no-go zone.
This weekend Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on first lead role in ten years. In the Last Stand he’s Sheriff Ray Owens, a rootin’, tooin’ small town lawman who battles a Mexican drug cartel.
It’s the first time Arnold has fought drug lords, but Hollywood often looks to the cartels for a supply of bad guys.
As recently as last year Oliver Stone cast Salma Hayek as the ruthless cartel leader in Savages, aided and abetted by Benicio Del Toro as her henchman.
There are also rumors that Scarface, the legendarily violent Al Pacino movie about a Cuban immigrant who takes over the south Florida drug trade, is about to be remade and relocated to the world of Mexican drug cartels.
In Traffic, the Oscar winning Steven Soderbergh movie, Clifton Collins Jr. plays the colorfully named hit man for the Tijuana Obregón Drug Cartel, Frankie Flowers. He meets an unpleasant end, but while he is alive his preferred weapon is a bomb. Why? “I don’t really like guns. You shoot someone in the head three times and some pinche doctor will keep them alive.”
The Johnny Depp movie Blow was actually renamed Cartel in some markets. Based on the book Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All, Depp plays George Jung, the man who launched the American cocaine market in the 1970s.
Jung forged his link to the Columbian Medellín cartel while in jail. “I went in with a Bachelor of marijuana,” he says, “and came out with a Doctorate of cocaine.” His business with them made him a millionaire—he weighed the money rather than take the time to count it—but also proved his undoing.
Jung never got even with the cartel but El Mariachi, Antonio Banderas’s guitar playing gunslinger in Desperado is determined to get even with the drug lord who killed his wife. In a twist—and this is a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film—the drug baron is actually El Mariachi’s older brother, Bucho.
Finally, Colombiana is another cartel revenge flick. Zoe Saldana is Cataleya Restrepo, who as a ten-year old saw her parents killed by a Bogota drug lord. Instead of calling the police she instead becomes an assassin who vows to avenge her family’s deaths. Her journey starts with ten words: “I want to be a killer. Can you help me?”