Troy Patterson
February 23, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

”Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. De Niro in Taxi Driver. Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon … ” Ask Benicio Del Toro to name the movie performances he most admires, and he reels off a roll call of volatile heroes and rousing rogues. ”Sean Penn in At Close Range. Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way. James Caan in The Godfather. Marlon Brando in everything.” This list could be that of any Method-mad film fan but for one omission: Del Toro in Traffic.

No exaggeration. As Javier Rodriguez, a cop whose nobility is worth $316 a month to the Mexican government, he seduces us with flashes of exacting eyes and easy strides of cowboy swagger. Call it Method Minimal. He persuaded director Steven Soderbergh to pare down his dialogue and enrich the story by letting faces tell it. In one such scene, he apprehends a hitman by cruising him in a gay bar, a wet grin on his lips and a colored rubber in the cellophane of his cigarette pack. In another, a pair of DEA agents ask him where he’d be willing to go to talk business; cut to Javier wearing swim trunks and an open expression in the shallow end of an unbuggable pool.

Not that minimalism is his only mode. Del Toro, 34, first gained wide notice as a garrulous, English-mangling crook in The Usual Suspects (1995). Three years later, he went Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — devolving into a flailing beast. But the beauty of his Traffic turn is its easy leanness, and — is this some intuitive proof of that? — he claims that his favorite fragment of the performance ”wasn’t really performed.” It’s the film’s last scene. The script calls only for Javier to watch a baseball game under night-lights in Tijuana. ”It was one of those where you don’t act,” the actor says. ”That one was kind of effortless.” Which, of course, is how the great ones make it look.

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