Filmmakers can struggle to prevent their swaggering villain from upstaging their innocuous hero. Writer-director Andrea Di Stefano clearly didn't worry about that when making Escobar: Paradise Lost. If he did, he wouldn't have cast Benicio del Toro as the bad guy.
Playing Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, the charismatic del Toro is the most vivid presence in the movie, which was loosely inspired by actual events. The other two principals are amiable and attractive, but bland. Fortunately for the movie's watchability, the fictional romance of Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and Maria (Claudia Traisac) exists primarily to bring the former into orbit of the eccentric, lethal Pablo.
Disheveled yet commanding, del Toro's Escobar is a pudgy, overgrown kid with a menagerie of African animals. He relishes playing the indulgent patron, even if he more resembles a campesino. Like some American rappers who later invoked him, Pablo has an adolescent fixation with gangsters, including the doomed Bonnie and Clyde.
Nico — that's what Pablo calls him — is well acquainted with the drug lord when the story begins. It's 1991, and Escobar is about to surrender to the police, as previously negotiated. All that remains before he enters a luxury prison, designed to his specifications, is to call his mother and kneel so they can share a farewell prayer. Pablo is a devout Catholic.
Actually, there's one more thing to be done: hiding Pablo's fortune in remote sites around the country. Although not a member of the cocaine gang, Nick is "like a son to me" — engaged to Maria, Pablo's beloved niece. Perhaps that will protect the young Canadian, who came to Colombia to surf, not peddle drugs and death.
The tale is recounted via a web of flashbacks and flash-forwards, beginning chronologically with Nick's introduction to Maria. She helps her uncle — a self-styled Robin Hood — open a medical clinic in the coastal town where Nick and his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) have just established a surfing camp. Soon, Pablo is facilitating the operation, discouraging small-time local thugs from bothering Nick and Dylan. Only later will Nick learn that Pablo's style is to eliminate mosquitoes with a flame-thrower.
Andrea Di Stefano, an Italian actor who makes his directorial debut with Escobar, doesn't give Nick and Maria's romance much heat, either from lust or conflict. Maria nonchalantly accepts that her uncle traffics in cocaine, which she considers a traditional Colombian crop. She doesn't know, or want to know, that Pablo is a killer. Nick figures out that part, but is foolishly slow to react. Or maybe it's that he's just too sitcom-star nice to give anyone a hard time, even a murderer.
Hutcherson, who's best known for being overshadowed by Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games series, is equally dominated here. But that suits the unequal relationship of guileless Nick and calculating Pablo. In the movie's complex centerpiece, Nick struggles to accept a murderous task that Pablo's assigned him, only to gradually recognize that his mission is more diabolical than his worst imagining.
Impressively staged in the Panama countryside, Nick's attempt to fulfill his duty with a minimum of carnage is taut and suspenseful. The kid may be naive, but that makes him an compelling audience surrogate. It's easy to identify with a laidback Canadian who's asked to do not one but all kinds of things that aren't mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide to drug-cartel tourism.
Can it all end safely for Nick? Well, maybe, since he's an invented character. But one omen worth noting is that the real Pablo Escobar died in 1993 of a bullet to the head.