The first half of Escobar: Paradise Lost plays out like a familiar, if somewhat troubling, romantic comedy. It's 1983, and Nick Brady (Josh Hutcherson) is a young American surfer who moves to Colombia, with his brother, to take advantage of the waves, women, and tropical weather. He meets Maria (Claudia Traisac) in a small coastal village, the two fall in love, and he proposes. The problem is, her uncle is Pablo Escobar (a rotund Benicio Del Toro), the infamous head of the Medellín Cartel.
But never mind that, for now. Escobar, when we first meet him, is a consummate family man, showering his myriad relatives with gifts and affection; he even invites Nick and Maria to live on his opulent ranch, the Hacienda. At this point, Nick's greatest source of concern is his assimilation into an enormous Colombian family (Josh Hutcherson's face telegraphs a barely concealed discomfort). But as Nick enters deeper into Escobar's circle of trust, he begins to suspect that something is amiss. For instance, when a gang of local thugs, who earlier assaulted Nick over a territory dispute, is gruesomely murdered, it's no secret that Escobar and his cronies are responsible.
Mostly, though, we only get slight intimations that Escobar is up to no good. That is, if you overlook an unintentionally funny exchange between Nick and Maria early in their romance. Nick, in awe of Escobar's wealth, asks, "How did he make all his money?" To which Maria blithely responds, "Cocaine," with an approving smile. Everyone, it seems, is well aware of the fact that Escobar is in charge of a lucrative drug trafficking operation. That's why, when some of the more unpleasant details of his scheme come to light, it's hard to sympathize with Nick and Maria's dismay. Being surprised that a drug lord uses violent tactics is like being surprised to find water in a swimming pool.
Escobar: Paradise Lost
Andrea Di Stefano
Josh Hutcherson, Benicio Del Toro, Brady Corbet
26 June 2015
Josh's Grade: C
Flash forward to 1991. Escobar has orchestrated the assassination of a presidential candidate, and is going to surrender himself to the authorities. But first, he's got to hide his loot. To do so, he enlists a cadre of henchmen, including Nick, to escort the riches to remote locations and then execute their local guides. This is where the movie changes completely. It's not an ill-conceived shift, but it is incongruous; stylistically and thematically, the two halves of Escobar: Paradise Lost are like totally separate films. What began as a meandering exploration of the private life of a notorious criminal becomes, for better or worse, a popcorn action flick.
First, Nick ventures into the mountains with his teenaged guide Martin (Micke Moreno, whose provincial enthusiasm is infectious). Cinematographer Luis David Sansans excels in this sequence, taking full advantage of the lush Panamanian vistas that stand in for the Colombian countryside. When they return – Nick cannot bring himself to shoot his young comrade – he finds himself in the crosshairs of Escobar's hit men. As he tries desperately to escape his assailants and make his way to the Canadian embassy in Bogota, the story becomes more streamlined and the action more stylized. Gone is any pretense of verisimilitude; this new narrative is one of cartoon villains and shootouts. Director Andrea Di Stefano adopts an entirely different visual vocabulary, one where a gun-toting Nick stands over a would-be assassin and points the barrel straight at the camera, like he's Mel Gibson in Payback (1999). The action is taut, but the whole sequence feels out of place in a film that heretofore grasped for realism.
What's missing from all of this is Escobar himself. Indeed, El Patron is surprisingly auxiliary in a film that includes his surname in the title. Del Toro, blending understated charisma with icy indifference, isn't given all that much to do, and many of his lines, especially toward the end, are allegorical threats that come off as strange rather than menacing (an extended metaphor involving the plot of The Jungle Book is particularly odd).
The closest analog to this story is The Last King of Scotland (2006), about a young physician who becomes a confidant of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. That movie worked so well because it placed their burgeoning relationship at the center and then slowly peeled away the pleasant veneer, revealing the full extent of Amin's madness, paranoia, and barbarism (made all the more enthralling by Forest Whitaker's Oscar-winning performance as Amin). The investigation of the bond between Nick and Escobar is far less thorough, though there are some moments of skewed bonding: when Escobar demonstrates how to use a pistol's safety, he does so with fatherly care and attention. But he is disappointingly sidelined, relegated to an ominous but mostly absent role, as the movie prioritizes the far less interesting Nick Brady. It's as though Di Stefano, in his fervor for fast-paced excitement, forgot what makes the story truly compelling: Pablo Escobar.