With dark, sunken eyes and a perpetually open mouth, Benicio Del Toro has the look of a tired soul that has been scourged by life. There is a reason he so often plays a drug addict, and it's no wonder he was so great a choice as the sidekick attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He soured the role just enough to stave off goofiness in a twistedly funny character that has since gone down in movie history.
Such gifts are also the reason Del Toro was probably not the best choice to play Ernesto "Che" Guevara, whose visage has been cast so iconically on millions of T-shirts as a fire-eyed, youthful champion of revolt. Del Toro, though an interesting enough star to carry the epic length of Steven Soderbergh's four-hour Che, has a face too suffused with fatigue for the role, even though Guevara spent his last months in physical ruin leading a futile campaign in the harsh jungles of Bolivia. One could more likely envision Del Toro as perhaps a less self-assured lieutenant, maybe one who wonders if all this trudging around in the backcountry is worth the effort.
If Guevara had such feelings, or any others, Soderbergh's film guards them more zealously than a box of fine Havanas. Che, for all its length, does not reveal much about its characters except that they did a lot of marching during the uprisings they led, first in Cuba and then in Bolivia. Based on memoirs by Guevara, the film is divided between these two career phases in two-hour episodes -- IFC will release them as separate films: The Argentine and Guerrilla. Probably like its source material, the movie concentrates on painting a realistic portrait of guerrilla warfare. Such campaigns, we learn, are long, muddy, and fraught with unforeseeable complications, and, as Guevara will discover the hard way, not always successful.
As a lifelike re-enactment of history, the direction and acting is a success, since, even with such a recognizable star at its center, the portrayal of real men and women sweating out revolution in humid country frequently achieves documentary realism. Some of the battles are extraordinary. The downside is that Guevara, along with co-revolutionary Fidel Castro (Demiรกn Bichir), remains mostly out of focus as an individual. This may be how Guevara would have wanted it, since he supposedly told Bolivian government officials set to execute him that they were only going to kill the man. But as a piece of drama the point of view has its limitations.
Shortly after Part 1 concludes, even the most agreeable filmgoer is bound to question what is to be gleaned from another two hours spent wandering around in undifferentiated subtropical greenery, especially since the strategy and tactics were already given thorough going-over in the first half. The only difference in Part 2 is that they don't work this time, and, if anything, Del Toro and his character retreat farther into the background.
Even with films like this and the similarly themed The Motorcycle Diaries, one has to believe there's a movie -- and an actor -- meant to reveal who Guevara really was.
Written by: Peter Buchman (Parts 1 and 2) and Benjamin A. van der Veen (Part 2)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Demiรกn Bichir, Santiago Cabrera