In 1983, Nick Brady (Josh Hutcherson) arrives in Colombia to run a surf camp with his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet). It’s there that he meets a new girl by the name of Maria (Claudia Traisac) and instantly falls for her, soon discovering that she’s the niece of the infamous Pablo Escobar (Benecio Del Toro).
Escobar shows himself to be quite the local hero in Nick’s eyes, bestowing his wealth to the locals and even running for office on platforms that promise hope and prosperity. However, as Nick comes to know Escobar more and more, he begins to see the true, unsettling extent of his power.
To those who may be unaware of who Pablo Escobar was (and if all those nighttime talk show segments that pop quiz unsuspecting guests are any indication, that number may be larger than I’d like to believe), Escobar was a drug kingpin that had the country of Colombia wrapped around his finger. Regarded as the wealthiest criminal in history, he’s earned a net-worth of $30 billion by the early ’90s (adjusted for 2014, he’d be worth around $58 billion).
Heisenberg may have ruled Arizona, but “The King of Cocaine” would’ve made Mr. White his little bitch.
There’s no question a biopic of Pablo Escobar has all the necessary ingredients for a fascinating film. His worldwide drug operation and notoriously intimidating tactics are aspects of his life that are ripe for a compelling drama/thriller, and the fact that he was revered by many within his community (particularly with the poor) as a Colombian Robin Hood makes for a complex character study as well.
Benecio Del Toro seems like almost too easy of a casting choice to play the iconic drug lord, but it’s for good reason. He slips comfortably into the role and delivers a fantastic performance that grabs our attention whenever he appears onscreen, eschewing grand theatrics a lesser talent might feel compelled to resort to for a menacing demeanor that’s quiet and reserved, and all the more terrifying because of it. He doesn’t need to put on a flashy show; he can prove to you he means business with just a cold hard stare.
Despite Del Toro’s strong work, Escobar: Paradise Lost doesn’t quite live up to either of its titles, the primary one being obvious and the subtitle being a nod to John Milton’s literary classic Paradise Lost which deals with the fall of Lucifer that eventually leads to the temptation and subsequent fall of man. Writer/director Andrea Di Stefano gives us a glimpse into the life of the title character, a man who was idolized as much as he was demonized, but unfortunately only scratches the surface as he reduces Escobar down to a supporting player in favor of Josh Hutcherson’s Nick Brady, who really is the central focus of the film. This, despite the title leading you to believe otherwise.
It’s not that a film about a historical figure from the perspective of another character can’t work. The Last King of Scotland told the story of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin through the eyes of James McAvoy’s fictional character Dr. Nicholas Garrigan. That film worked, though, ’cause McAvoy’s character had a much more interesting arc than Hutcherson’s (an Oscar-winning turn from Forest Whitaker also helps), and the relationship between Garrigan and Amin was fleshed out better. Here, Di Stefano rushes the story’s progression which hinders the development of a central character that really isn’t that interesting to begin with. He meets Maria, falls in love with her practically by the next frame, and before you know it, he’s in deep with Pablo’s family and trying to run for his life at the sudden (in this case, all too sudden) realization that his wife’s uncle is not the squeaky clean family man he appears to be. Although di Stefano uses a time-hopping device that works somewhat effectively in that it won’t throw the viewer off, the film skims through each important plot point without giving the story enough time to let each one breathe a little.
As for Hutcherson, he’s a fine young actor and although it’s not a performance I’ll be talking about next year or even next week for that matter, he does a good job considering the lack of material he has to work with. Going up against an Oscar-winning actor such as Del Toro is not easy either.
Escobar: Paradise Lost certainly benefits from a strong performance by Benecio Del Toro and Josh Hutcherson compensates his character’s shallow depth with a solid enough performance. However, despite a thrilling third act, Andrea Di Stefano doesn’t really do justice to one of South America’s most infamous figures, brushing him off to the side in place of a lackluster central character. Del Toro may be great here, but if anything, his performance makes you wish the film placed a greater focus on his larger than life character.
I give Escobar: Paradise Lost a C (★★½).