Escobar: Paradise Lost, despite being too slight for its own good, has solid and sometimes thrilling moments, an assured hand from a first time director, and performances that match the tone of the material well. It’s just a shame about the story and that wonky script.
It seemed like paradise for Canadian slacker Nick (Josh Hutcherson) who come to the beaches of Columbia to teach surfing and live the good life. He even meets Maria (Claudia Traisac), the girl of his dreams who wants to spend the rest of his life with. He couldn’t be happier, but things get complicated when she takes him to meet her family, and her uncle turns out to be the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro), who rules the cocaine trade with a brutally violent iron fist. As Nick gets drawn into the family, he has to get everyone he loves out of Colombia before the violence of the cartels and the drug trade consumes them all.
Don’t try and apply any historical facts to this story because they won’t fly, but there is something unique about actor turned writer/director Andrea di Stefano’s blend of action, suspense, drama and romance. He’s a better director than a writer, as the story overstuffs itself and spreads itself too thin to be believable, but it’s usually more engaging than not. He clearly knows how to juggle his complex love story with some nicely understated visual style, and he knows how to pace it even if he doesn’t know how to work it out all the way. While some of the dialogue isn’t necessarily the best (and sometimes eye rolling at the worst), Di Stefano still leads his actors to some decent performances.
One wouldn’t have blamed Benicio if he had gone entirely over the top here. On paper this seems like an easy day at the office of him, but he reels in his sometimes manic energy to give Escobar some genuine layers. He was a vicious criminal, but also a compassionate family man, and del Toro makes you see the good behind a man capable of unspeakable acts. Hutcherson is a decent choice as an aimless kid, and he plays it right. Even though he’s the protagonist and hero, nothing he ever does is overly heroic. He’s appropriately scared out of his mind and acting purely on survival instinct.
It’s hardly a great film, and it’s easy to see why the film finds itself adrift in the January dumping ground, but it’s better than most other options out there. It opens theatrically in several cities across Canada this weekend, and at the same time nationwide on VOD, which might be the better option. It’s more of a “stay in to beat the cold” movie than something you might want to actually venture out into the cold to watch.