"Che" skips biopic missteps, but 4-½-hour saga oddly uncompelling
"Che," Steven Soderbergh's four-hour-plus epic about Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played by a perfectly cast Benicio Del Toro), is split into two parts: the Cuban revolution and Guevara's failure in Bolivia. While avoiding the standard biopic clichés, it's a strangely distant and unemotional drama.
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"Che," with Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Catalina Sandino Moreno. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, from a screenplay by Peter Buchman (Part 1) and by Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (Part 2). 269 minutes. Rated R for violence. In Spanish and English, with English subtitles. Varsity.
As long and sprawling as a television miniseries, Steven Soderbergh's "Che" meticulously avoids most of the clichés of biographical movies. Yet it doesn't offer much to replace them.
An honorable attempt to tell the story of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in 4-½ hours, it's curiously distant and unemotional. If you're looking for an epic tale of revolution as stirring as "Viva Zapata!" or "Spartacus," you'll have to find your inspiration elsewhere.
Still, Benicio Del Toro, who won a supporting-actor Oscar under Soderbergh's direction in "Traffic," is perfectly cast as the Marxist revolutionary who helped free Cuba from Fulgencio Batista's corrupt regime in 1959. Del Toro makes the case that Guevara was both a compassionate, charismatic speaker and a ruthless leader with Stalinist tendencies, and he seems happiest when emphasizing that complication.
Demian Bichir makes a convincing Fidel Castro, even if the basis of his partnership with Guevara is somewhat murky. For all its length, the movie, based on Guevara's writings, fails to establish why Castro took over for Batista while Guevara went elsewhere. An intermission makes Castro and Guevara's separation complete.
Soderbergh begins Part 1 of his marathon by shoveling dates, names of countries and newsreel clips at the audience. As he tries to set up the context for the communist rise to power, only a few minor characters stand out.
A prisoner asks for an extra swig of rum before he's executed. A soldier is memorably reprimanded for lax guard duty. An American senator is thanked for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which had the blowback effect of uniting Cubans against the United States. Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips make an impact in small roles, but only because their fame distracts.
Part 1 ends on a splendid note, with Guevara rejecting a splashy stolen car as inappropriate for the idealistic new regime's entry into Havana. It's a bravely symbolic moment and an ideal introduction to Part 2, much of which unfortunately lacks that sense of focus.
The second half is essentially a series of scenes in which a disguised Guevara, charged with leading the mistreated rebels of Bolivia, repeatedly fails to make the case that they've been exploited. Aside from a few moments that vividly contrast the Cuban invasion with the depressing nature of the Bolivian episode, Part 2 seems shapeless.
In both halves, the battle scenes are grimy, chaotic and exciting, filmed in lush jungle landscapes that provide a shocking contrast to the carnage.
Never as laughable as 1969's Hollywood entry "Che!," starring Omar Sharif as Guevara and Jack Palance as Castro, Soderbergh's "Che" also avoids the romantic approach of 2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries," with Gael Garcia Bernal cast as Guevara.
In so many ways, Soderbergh's film does the right things, usually by omission. Why, then, does it feel slightly wrong?
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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