‘Escobar: Paradise Lost’
Director: Andrea Di Stefano
Stars: Josh Hutcherson, Benicio Del Toro
3 (out of 5) Globes
The Colombian drug god Pablo Escobar has never gotten his own major, splashy movie, so it’s easy to get irritated that his first essentially turns him into a supporting player in a film bearing his name. And it’s worse than that: the generically titled “Escobar: Paradise Lost” actually has the ideal Escobar actor. Benicio Del Toro’s deeply remote, deeply eccentric, always vaguely sinister shtick is perfect for a man capable of both kindness and unimaginable villainy. And it’s worse than that still: it bumps Escobar to the sidelines so it can hang not with one of his underlings, not with a relative, not even with an agent trying to bust him. It hangs with a white Canadian bro stupid enough to have married his niece.
“Escobar” isn’t even done. Said dumb-as-bricks Canadian is played by Josh Hutcherson, with his usual state of permanent open-mouthed blankness. He’s Nick — who, by the way, is a fictitious character, so there’s that too — who has come down with his slightly smarter brother (Brady Corbet) to teach surfing on a beach. Nick quickly falls for Maria (Claudia Traisac), a nurse who early in her relationship introduces him to her uncle: a wealthy philanthropist who likes to give back to the people — and, as Nick is too slow to realize, also orders the gory ends of his enemies and anyone he suspects of getting even mildly in his way.
To his credit, not even Maria seems to be fully aware of what her uncle is capable of, and herein lies “Escobar”’s wobbly but noble reason for being. By reducing its title character to what amounts to a series of scene-stealing walk-ons — and by focusing on a boring guy just caught up in the wake of a legendary modern baddie — it emulates how evil was allowed to thrive. Escobar lurks in the shadows, swings by for appearances both charismatic and creepy, then slinks off to do god knows what. Del Toro milks his handful or two of scenes for what they’re worth. The best finds him crashing Nick’s room in the middle of the night, casually pumping him for information on a local gang that fed his arm to a Doberman. Del Toro then busts out a click-pen to write down their names in a manner that’s unnervingly casual, as though Escobar was just reminding himself that he needs eggs.
At its best, “Escobar” has a lean, dispassionate toughness. Even a framing device turns out to be far hairier than we perhaps assumed. The second half is a straight-up thriller, with Nick, stranded in a remote village, trying to survive assassins and maybe protect a 15-year-old accomplice. In a way, these scenes are almost too movie-ish, and you can sense actor-turned-director Andrea Di Stefano using the film less to expose the socio-economic conditions that produce a madman than to get other jobs. But it knows to use the minimal amount of Escobar action as a strength, strongly suggesting that no matter how much it showed, it could never come close to conveying the full horrors he unleashed. Still, just a teensy bit more Escobar would have been nice.