Benicio del Toro looms on the poster for Escobar: Paradise Lost in full hollow-eyed mustachioed grandeur, his deadly visage filling the sky above a teensy image of a white dude running along with a gun. What a surprise, then, to discover in the movie that the white dude (Josh Hutcherson, playing naive) is the star and del Toro’s Pablo Escobar is something more like the weather.
This is one of the greatest missed opportunities in recent cinema history: Del Toro looms more impressively on camera than he does in the marketing material, embodying a wicked man’s perverse sense of family, honor, and self-interest. But he’s scariest when he’s banal, watching soccer or reading The Jungle Book to a child, at terrifying ease even as his mind is on murder.
Too bad Escobar‘s not about Escobar. The dreary first half plays like some Abercrombie & Fitch variant on an old-school men’s-magazine fantasy of dangerous romance abroad: “I Married the Niece of a Colombian Gangster!” Hutcherson’s Canadian surf-bro falls for Maria (Claudia Traisac), whose traits boil down to this: gorgeous niece of Escobar. Writer-director Andrea Di Stefano, an Italian actor, stages some of this nicely, employing multiple arresting setups within single shots, but neither he nor his actors hit upon how to connect this love story to an audience’s hearts.
Still, there’s another shock to come. For a half-hour or so toward the end, Di Stefano whips up first-rate suspense, with Hutcherson’s character first ordered by Escobar to murder a campesino — and then endeavoring to escape Colombia when this mission goes bad. But these scenes, tense and sweaty, don’t save a picture whose emphasis feels off from the start.
Escobar: Paradise Lost
Written and directed by Andrea Di Stefano
Opens June 26