Master of dark arts

Benicio del Toro delves into the darkness in <i>Savages</i>.
Benicio del Toro delves into the darkness in Savages.

''LADO enjoys the foreplay to evil. He adds a new dimension to psychopath,'' says Benicio del Toro.

In his first major Hollywood role - the 1989 Bond film Licence to Kill - del Toro was a switchblade-wielding villain, and he's been developing his dark side ever since. In Oliver Stone's aptly titled new film, Savages, del Toro steals the show as Lado, a sadistic enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel.

''Playing a villain is fun!'' del Toro says. ''There's moment after moment in Savages; things like Lado keeping mementoes of the absolutely terrible things that he's done to people.''

Lado has his own video-equipped torture dungeon and habitually snaps phone photos of the trail of corpses he leaves behind. Just as important to this monster is his luxuriant, shaggy mullet that looks as though Lado cuts it himself in the rear-view mirror of his van. ''It's my own hair!'' del Toro boasts in his trademark husky tones. ''Lado is very proud of his hair. It's part of the construction of the character, his vanity, his huge ego.''

The Golden Globe and Oscar-winning actor has never been less than memorable in almost 30 films including The Usual Suspects, Snatch, Traffic, 21 Grams and Sin City. Savages proves no exception.

''Oliver wants to capture something, like every day he's ready for war,'' del Toro says of his director. ''He makes it so that all the actors are in that place with him.''

At the centre of the story is a stoner-surfer menage a trois. Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, Battleship) and Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) are Chon and Ben, wealthy purveyors of Afghan super-weed to Laguna Beach's party crowd. Their shared girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), is abducted by Lado and the ransom is nothing less than their pot empire. The boys mount a complex, desperate rescue mission.

Del Toro explains that Savages is a condemnation of the failure of the US ''war on drugs''. ''Oliver Stone is saying that the future could be very, very dark. What can you do to stop this madness? These narco gangs, people like Lado, only live an hour away.''

Savages opens on October 18.

This story Master of dark arts first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.