As the first non-documentary feature film in which the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is more than a minor supporting character, Escobar: Paradise Lost has been criticized for being a missed opportunity and a tease.
The film stars an ideally cast Benicio Del Toro as Escobar, the "King of Cocaine," who was said to have amassed a fortune worth $30 billion by 1993, when he was killed in a gunfight at age 44. Escobar's astonishing, terrifying life would be well suited for a Scarface-on-steroids violent crime epic, but the modestly budgeted Escobar: Paradise Lost eyeballs Escobar's empire through the initially innocent gaze of Nick Brady (Josh Hutcherson -- Peeta in The Hunger Games), who is both insider and outsider: He's a Canadian surfer who can't speak Spanish, but he is married to Escobar's charity-worker niece, Maria (Claudia Traisac).
Debuting writer-director Andrea Di Stefano's model here seems to be The Last King of Scotland, a harrowing 2006 film that revealed the depths of Uganda dictator Ida Amin's depravity through the perspective of a Scottish physician. (James McAvoy was the doctor, while Forest Whitaker earned a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Amin.) In both films, a well-intentioned young white man is introduced as a figure of identification for the audience, which watches as the generic Everyman is seduced and then repulsed by the wealth and power of his exotic devil of a sponsor.
This is a legitimate if problematic storytelling device, and an effective way to peel the turtle's ornate shell to reveal the cold-blooded monster beneath. The difference between the films - and it's a crucial one - is that The Last King of Scotland was essentially a true story, while Escobar: Paradise Lost is highly fictionalized. Nick and Maria are not real characters, which makes their blandness and Nick's screen time - he's in almost every scene - somewhat irksome. The fact that the filmmakers felt the need to manufacture Nick to be the "mainstream" moviegoer's likable, trustworthy guide through Escobar-land becomes a revealingly presumptuous demonstration of racial/cultural myopia.
Why didn't Di Stefano model his protagonist on one of the real-life outsiders who became essential to Escobar's enterprise, such as New York-born smuggler-turned-informant Max Mermelstein? Were legal as well as budget reasons to blame? In any case, Nick remains a "clean" hero. He is morally compromised by his association with Escobar, but he never becomes a criminal, presumably so he still will have the audience's sympathy during the film's well-constructed cat-and-mouse final act, when Nick must elude a virtual army of assassins during the bloody purge ordered by "Uncle Pablo" in June 1991, just prior to Escobar's surrender to authorities to begin a negotiated prison sentence.
It's not entirely fair to criticize Escobar: Paradise Lost for not being more of a true story or an Escobar biopic, since neither option is what Di Stefano intended. Taken on its own terms, the movie is fairly engrossing and very well-produced, with various tropical Panama locations ably serving as the story's Colombian setting. The production design reveals Escobar's contradictory character: Although the drug czar is presented as not just a ruthless killer but also a reverent Christian, a devoted family man and a pseudo-Robin Hood who used some of his fortune to benefit the Colombian people, he's also more or less crazy, as reflected in the surreal extravagance of his estate, with its giant swimming pool, pony stables, live elephant and large dinosaur sculptures. In the smaller side rooms, where bloody plans are made, the buzz on the soundtrack suggests the presence of both hungry flies and faulty wiring inside Escobar's head; perhaps one day a movie will probe that skull more deeply.
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac.
Writer-director: Andrea Di Stefano.
A Radius-TWC release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower Theater.
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