By eschewing the most interesting parts of Escobar's life, this fact-based thriller misses the real story.
Escobar: Paradise Lost
If you’re not up on your Colombian drug lord trivia, in the late ‘70s to early ‘90s, Pablo Escobar (played here by Benecio del Toro) was a man to be reckoned with. He’s credited with starting the Colombian cocaine trade into the US, along with murdering anyone that might pose a threat to him. However, Escobar wasn’t offing just other criminals, but judges, journalists, and even a Colombian presidential candidate. At one point, he killed all 107 passengers aboard a commercial flight just to secure the death of one witness. He was one of the most powerful men in Colombia, if not the most powerful.
Yet somehow, almost inexplicably, none of that gets touched upon in Escobar: Paradise Lost, the newest film from director Andrea Di Stefano. Instead, we follow the footsteps of Nico (Josh Hutcherson), the Canadian husband of Escobar’s niece Maria (Claudia Traisac), who’s staying in one of Escobar’s many Colombian villas. But his terrifying uncle-in-law (Hutcherson spends most of the movie with his eyes popping out of his head in fear) won’t be around for long. He’s secured a plea bargain with the Colombian government, and is to turn himself in the following day. But before then, Escobar has one or two things to take care of. For a wealthy drug lord, it’s the usual: calling together his most trusted men to bury diamonds and other valuables, followed by swiftly executing any witnesses. In a rare, quiet moment before the film’s final showdown, Escobar tells Nico he sees him as a son, then shows him how to use a gun. Escobar orders Nico to meet up with one of his men who knows the location of an abandoned mine. Escobar’s instructions: shoot the man once the treasure is securely buried. This definitely isn’t the paradise Nico envisioned when he and his surfer brother showed up to Colombia a few years prior.
As much as we can sympathize with Nico’s “good guy must grow a pair” dilemma, that predicament has been done to death in movies. Escobar: Paradise Lost is a decent enough action film, but the real problem is with the film’s namesake; he’s just not that interesting on screen. And that’s incredible, because the real Escobar was a polarizing and complicated figure, and Benecio del Toro is an effective and nuanced actor. The real problem is that the writers picked the wrong story to tell. Nico is the protagonist here instead of Escobar, and Hutcherson spends more time making concerned expressions with his face than actually talking. It’s hard to feel invested in him or his relationship with Maria. It’s only when his would-be target calls in sick for the job and sends his 15-year-old son instead that any dramatic tension in the film appears. The unlikely cat and mouse chase that ensues makes for an above-average action caper in the second half, but not enough to overcome the missed opportunity of covering the film’s fascinating and largely untapped source material.
To be fair, Benecio del Toro is transfixing during his time on screen, nailing those subtle tics of suppressed anger. But the problem is more about the lack of any stakes in the film. It’s easy when a writer is so entrenched in a subject to not realize that 1991 is now over two decades ago, and not all moviegoers are going to remember CNN footage like it was yesterday. Without introducing us to the backstory at all (the movie starts in medias res with Nico and his wife frantically attempting to flee the country), we don’t know how important it was to capture Escobar. And since we’re not introduced to the polarizing nature of his character either (he had a bit of a Robin Hood complex, selling cocaine to the rich and giving to Columbia’s poor communities), it doesn’t make a lot of sense when throes of people show up in support as he turns himself in to the police. Even with a quality actor like del Toro, Escobar comes off as nothing more than a generic cutthroat mobster who takes no prisoners.
I’m reminded of another cocaine kingpin film, 2001’s Blow, starring Johnny Depp as George Jung. While not necessarily the genre’s finest either, the script, based on the book written by the drug lord himself, has some ambiguity that makes the character a bit more interesting than Escobar in Paradise Lost. It’s obvious that Jung’s version of events are complete rubbish, but this kind of self-delusion and superman complex, and the task inside the audience’s mind of reconciling truth from fiction, is sometimes what makes for interesting characters. In contrast, Pablo Escobar, at least in this film, is unfortunately transparent, obvious, and lacking any sense of real humanity. For a man that was finally caught because, against his own best interest, he kept making long phone calls to his teenage son (another point the film doesn’t get to), I think there was more dynamism to get to here. And Benecio del Toro is sorely underutilized in that regard. Still, the acting elevates it to something watchable, if not particularly revelatory or enticing. For true history buffs, the 2009 award-winning documentary, Sins of My Father, as told through the perspective of Escobar’s son, might be a more worthwhile investment.