Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)
“Welcome to the family”
Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)
Director: Andrea Di Stefano
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac
Synopsis: In Colombia, a young surfer meets the woman of his dreams – and then he meets her uncle, Pablo Escobar.
Considering it’s more than 20 years since the death of Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar – he was gunned down in December, 1993 – a film about his exploits is long overdue. After all, this is the guy who built a criminal empire which made millions of dollars a day back in the ‘80s, and spent $1000 a month on elastic bands to wrap around his money. A movie was planned for release in 2011, but the producer filed for bankruptcy before filming began. Judging from this movie’s title and the prominence of Benicio Del Toro in the publicity material, there’s little doubt that the marketing people behind Escobar: Paradise Lost want you to believe that this is the long-awaited biopic. Sadly that’s not the case. Escobar might loom large over the story, and it apparently remains true to many of the details of his life and personality, but he’s simply a real person placed within a fictional tale. Why? Because Escobar: Paradise Lost wouldn’t be anywhere near as compelling if he wasn’t. It’s a smart move by first-time writer and director Andrea Di Stefano, even if it does feel like a bit of a cheat.
The central character in Escobar: Paradise Lost is actually an ordinary – and ever-so-slightly dull – Canadian surfer called Nick (Josh Hutcherson – The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), who finds himself seriously out of his depth when he discovers that the sweet local girl (Claudia Traisac) he’s dating while beach-bumming in Colombia is actually the niece of Pablo Escobar, a local politician-cum drug dealer who is feared and respected in equal measure. Given that Escobar was the world’s most famous drug dealer in the early ‘90s, it’s something of a stretch for us to believe that neither Nick or his new girlfriend are aware of Uncle Pablo’s day job, but there we have it. Nick does eventually pick up on certain clues, though – the sight of one of Escobar’s henchman hosing blood off his feet, for example, and the way that the big man himself lovingly polishes the very car in which Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down – and naturally has second thoughts about setting up house in Escobar’s sprawling ranch house. In fact, he has just persuaded his wife-to-be to flee the country with him when Escobar asks for a rather large and deadly favour…
It’s fair to say that Escobar: Paradise Lost wouldn’t be the film it is without the title character, and that the title character would be nowhere near as mesmerising had he not been portrayed by the rather wonderful Benicio Del Toro (The Usual Suspects, Snatch). It’s a well-written part anyway, but even they need a great actor to provide the meat and bones that make the character come alive. It would be natural for many filmmakers to follow the Tony Camonte route of portraying Escobar as a bloodthirsty paranoid megalomaniac, but Di Stefano shows some class by portraying him as something of a paradox, an outwardly normal man with a soul as black as pitch, a loving father and husband who can calmly and impersonally order the murder of anyone whose death will benefit him in some way, even if they are his own loyal men. His madness is a quiet one, as evidenced in the scene in which he mildly informs an astounded priest that, while in prison, he will be keeping an eye on God. Not once does Del Toro fall back on the usual tricks; there’s none of that holding-one’s-head-very-still-and-never-blinking business. There’s no intensity to his performance, either, just a measured calmness which somehow makes him all the more terrifying.
It’s unfortunate for Hutcherson that the quality of Del Toro’s performance serves as an unfavourable comparison by which his own is measured and found wanting. He doesn’t give a particularly bad performance, but he doesn’t own the part the way that Del Toro does, and subsequently makes very little impression. This is partly due to his bland features, but also in the way that Di Stefano seems so intent on making him an everyday kid that he erases any hint of character. Whereas very few actors could do justice to the part of Escobar, almost anybody under the age of thirty could have played Nick.
Nevertheless, Escobar: Paradise Lost boasts a compelling second hour which piles on the suspense as Nick finds himself on the run from both the police and Escobar’s private army, and a surprisingly downbeat ending. But while it’s perfectly acceptable to build a story around the assumption that no corner of Colombian society was beyond the reach of the tentacles of Escobar’s empire, a legitimate fact-based biopic of the monstrous power he wielded would surely satisfy the appetite rather than merely whetting it in the way that Escobar: Paradise Lost does.
(Reviewed on 3rd November 2015)