The legacy of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who reached the height of his cocaine-smuggling power in the eighties running a multimillion dollar cartel operation, is obvious fodder for the movies. Though Escobar surrendered to authorities in 1991, escaped a year later and was killed in a firefight shortly afterward, his luxurious career provides many access points, as demonstrated by the recent spate of Escobar projects: In addition to a 2012 Colombian mini-series, contemporary efforts to explore Escobar’s life include the upcoming production of the black list screenplay “The Ballad of Pablo Escobar,” starring John Leguizamo in the title role, and the tense, well-acted “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” which features Benicio Del Toro.
The latter movie, the directorial debut of Italian director Andrea Di Stefano, confronts the challenge of representing Escobar’s legacy in a unique fashion — by making him a supporting character.
Which is not to say that Del Toro, an actor whose steely-eyed gaze fits the part, doesn’t get the chance to relish his opportunity. Exclusively portraying Escobar during the later stages of his career when he already commanded unassailable authority, Del Toro turns Escobar into a subdued terror whose ability to order murders with ease provides the movie with its chief source of dread. Rather than regurgitate Escobar’s entire saga, however, Di Stefano centers the story around a fictionalized account involving young Canadian Nico (Josh Hutcherson) who inadvertently falls into the criminal’s crosshairs after falling in love with his niece (Claudia Traisac).
Though initially warm to his potential in-law, Escobar ultimately exploits Nico’s allegiance by assigning him to aid in hiding the criminal’s fortune before his incarceration. Nico’s inevitable sense of uncertainty about going through with the plan, and the horrific outcome of his decision, forms the crux of the movie’s taut, suspenseful third act. While “Escobar” simplifies its subject’s exploits, leaving the details of his smuggling operation out of the picture, it achieves a more immediate effect by rendering the fear of Escobar’s power in visceral B-movie terms that makes them relatable. Di Stefano’s memorable debut feature makes up for its lack of sophistication with constant forward motion.
Opening in the summer of 1991, “Escobar” begins with Nico being called into the cartel’s hideout and tasked with committing a murder on the drug lord’s behalf. Speeding off on his mission along the dark road and hardly able to keep his breath, Nico is stuck in a conundrum that only becomes clear as Di Stefano flashes back to years earlier. Arriving on the Colombian coast to run a surf camp with his eager brother (Brady Corbet), Nico meets the smarmy Maria (Traisac), and quickly falls for her. The sunny beaches provide a notable visual contrast to the murkier scenes that follow, as Nico gradually realizes the extent of Escobar’s power. At social gatherings, Escobar’s domineering personality leaves Nico in a confused state about his priorities.
These scenes unfold with a steadily developing sense of unease, and while they state the rising tides of danger a little too obviously — Nico glimpsing pools of blood at Escobar’s estate, begging Maria to let them to go home — his frustration helps to set up a concluding series of events far more cohesive than the moments leading up to them.
In the deftly assembled final act, as Nico attempts to go through with Escobar’s orders and then evade his gun-wielding forces from every direction, Nico launches a desperate survival mission that works on its own terms. Di Stefano’s penchant for elegant, visually-driven suspense comes out in a prolonged chase sequence that finds the frantic Nico hiding in small areas, stealing a car, and contemplating whether or not to pull the trigger in more than one dire situation.
Hutcherson imbues the character with a believability that transcends the script’s limitations. The actor’s supporting gig in the “Hunger Game” movies hasn’t provided him with sufficient material to show his range, but “Escobar” gives him with another shot, following noteworthy turns in “The Kids Are Alright” and “Detention.” His roles in those movies bear little resemblance to the wide-eyed survivor on display here.
Still, it’s Del Toro who manages the strongest achievement, imbuing Escobar with a creepy blend of charm and cruelty as he peers out from above a scrappy beard and orders death with ease. Short of his forgettable turn in “The Wolfman,” this is the actor’s first genuine monster role.
With its contained narrative, “Escobar” fails to develop the rest of its characters as well as it does for its two central men. Corbet, in a handful of scenes, hardly gets the chance to do much aside from looking terrified in a handful of fleeting scenes; Traisac, as Nico’s girlfriend, morphs from an individualistic figure in her earlier bits to an underwritten part as Nico’s teary-eyed support system. The screenplay is similarly marred by formula, lagging whenever it hits certain high melodramatic notes, and reminding us of the stakes in play with mopey, dime-store gravitas.
But all is forgiven thanks to the gripping climax, in which the identity of Nico’s assailant matters less than his impact on the young man in the moment as he struggles to get away. Even as Escobar offers himself to the authorities, one henchman delivers the menacing prognosis that “no one escapes from Pablo Escobar,” a threat that over the course of Di Stefano’s movie transforms into a compelling challenge. Consider Escobar’s ongoing legacy, the jury is out on whether the grim assessment remains true.