Escobar: Paradise Lost is a fine thriller that cannot live up to its title’s pretensions. Both parts before and after the colon promise a dramatic heft the film does not quite achieve. It is neither a probing, complex character study of Colombia’s most notorious drug kingpin nor is it a rich drama of sordid themes that its Milton-alluding subtitle suggests. Instead, the debut from Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano is an exciting cat-and-mouse thriller between a monstrous villain and his niece’s aloof, Canadian husband, the man who gets caught up in a whirlwind of Colombian corruption.
The young man on the run is Nick Brady (Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian surfer who we first see with his older brother (Brady Corbet) on the idyllic Colombian coastline. Boarding and working at equal measure, Nick finds his deepest salvation in the form of Maria (Claudia Traisac), a beautiful native who quickly falls for him. The endless summer is warm and hazy for Nick, until he finds out that Maria’s uncle is the titular drug lord, referred to as “El Patrón” by his allies and henchmen.
El Patron is played with muscular presence by Benicio del Toro, whose dark, probing eyes and slightly curled smile hint at a beast that Di Stefano’s screenplay cannot quite summon. Del Toro moves between unfettered charm – Nick first meets him in his mansion swimming pool, giddily playing with his children – and a near-haggard rage, as he tries to keep control of his territory and finances without showing vulnerability. Di Stefano likes to suggest that, per many villains of Escobar’s scope, the kingpin’s hubris is his tragic flaw. Escobar even has a replica of Clyde Barrow’s bullet-ridden car, which he shows off to Nick in a burst of ego, hoping to be remembered by going out in a similar blaze of glory.
Escobar: Paradise Lost is not going to be a crime classic like Bonnie and Clyde, but there are some riveting action set pieces in the second half. The film actually takes a cue from Scorsese and opens with a scene from the middle of the story. There, Escobar calls Nick and a bunch of his cronies to see him, explaining that he will turn himself into the authorities but wants the cartel to bury his riches to keep his reputation safe. Before Nick can fulfill his duty, Escobar gives the tanned Canadian a gun and orders him to execute the man who will assist him with burying some of his treasure. Nick does all he can to keep his hands from trembling as Escobar eyes him, suspicious.
The latter half of the film joins back with the story from this ultimatum, beginning with a taut and tense sequence between the hesitant Nick and his oblivious, enthusiastic driver, Martin (Micke Moreno, adding levity in an impressive screen debut). From there, Escobar: Paradise Lost routinely raises the stakes. The Hunger Games star is well cast as the naïve pawn that gets in too deep with the drug lord. That innocence and desperation slowly turning to self-confidence that worked so well in that dystopian franchise is in good supply here, as Nick continually realizes how low he must sink to keep himself alive.
Despite a screenplay that does not quite encompass the scope of Escobar’s reign and his outstretched influence in Colombia, Escobar: Paradise Lost ratchets up the suspense and dread for a bloody final third. Even without a hulking del Toro taking up much screentime, Hutcherson carries the film into its last act. Di Stefano keeps the camera with the actor as he tries to evade capture and Escobar’s henchmen, often going for point-of-view shots that center the viewer in the midst of Nick’s dilemma. As the tension escalates, so does the Hutcherson’s nervousness (and Luis Sansans’ rattling camera).
These invigorating sections make up for some mawkish moments outside of Medellin, as Nick and his brother bask at the beauty of the Colombian coastline, as curvy waves crash on the shore. The director returns to this serene, sunbaked setting and sounds of birds cawing in the distance right before cutting to black and revealing the film’s subtitle. In case the audience hadn’t noticed the film’s descent from surfing through warm beaches to standoffs between warring cartels, it’s an obvious, redundant creative choice.
Similar to how The Last King of Scotland focused on the Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy even though Forest Whitaker got the meatier role (and the eventual Oscar), Hutcherson does his best to anchor a film that could have used more of Del Toro. Di Stefano’s screenplay could have featured more scenes between the two men early on to solidify the nuances of their relationship. It doesn’t take long from Nick’s wedding to Maria to when we see him asked to commit cold-blooded murder for the family business.
Nevertheless, with a large belly and imposing stance, the Oscar-winning actor commands the screen, even when he is not there. Del Toro’s penetrating gaze ensures we understand why so many of Escobar’s thugs and friends obeyed him. As a whole, though, Escobar: Paradise Lost is a bit slight in explaining the depths of the kingpin’s darkness. One wishes a longer cut of the film had put more of an emphasis on the fascinating figure that makes up a third of its title.
Tense, if a little tame given its explosive subject, Escobar: Paradise Lost benefits from a suspenseful final act and a menacing Benicio del Toro