You know that deeply anxious expression that Josh Hutcherson wears throughout "The Hunger Games" movies? Well, if you’re a fan of his trademark chagrined countenance, you get a whole lot more of it in "Escobar: Paradise Lost," where his character has a pretty good reason for near-constant concern. In this potboiler, Hutcherson’s a white boy (obviously) who’s pledged to marry into the family of famed Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. What, he worry?
At some point you may wonder why we’ve devoted an entire first paragraph to Josh Hutcherson when the title character is played by Benicio freaking Del Toro, the sort of dream casting that would seem to be a lede that shouldn’t be buried. Unfortunately, Escobar is a supporting character in his own movie, a situation that brings to mind "The Last King of Scotland," which enlisted Forest Whitaker to play Idi Amin but then similarly decided we’d rather spend more screen time with a completely fictional Caucasian who gets improbably pulled into the foreign despot’s lair. Perhaps ‘Escobar’ writer-director Andrea Di Stefano was following the advice that a little bit of a super-villain goes a long way, but there’s a lot of stretching involved to set a movie entirely in Colombia and then go through hoops to make the lead a Canadian.
Does it kind of work anyway? Yes, up to a heavy-handed point, just as ‘Last King of Scotland’ also did. Di Stefano, an actor previously seen in movies like ‘Life of Pi,’ has made a technically assured debut on the other side of the camera, if you don’t mind some of the less credible turns his screenplay takes in first setting up Hutcherson and Del Toro as family, then pitting them against one another in a deadly game.
The opening flash-forward has fresh-faced Nick/Nico (Hutcherson) being called into Escobar’s lair on the eve of the drug lord turning himself into the authorities in 1991. Nico is being asked not just to run a mission to hide some of Escobar’s ill-gotten riches until after the jail term, but to murder whoever helps him stash the dough. Whatever explanation we’re going to be given for how he got in this racially color-blind compromised position, it’s not going to be terribly credible, but we get a long version of the story anyway, as Nick —who we see giving surf lessons on Colombia’s beaches— meets up with a gorgeous local who turns out to have the most powerful and sinister figure in the country as a protective uncle. Maria (Claudia Traisac) seems green about the gruesome nature of Escobar’s crimes, though not so naïve that she doesn’t cheerfully answer “cocaine” when her new boyfriend finally asks about the family business.
Escobar is the kind of godfather who doesn’t need you to come in and ask for favors in order to grant them. Noticing that his niece’s new guy has bite marks on his arm from an attack by thugs, Del Toro quietly writes a note to himself on his hand —one of many nice comic grace notes— and before Nick knows it, his tormentors have been found hanging upside down, burned alive. If that’s the kind of gift Escobar offers after a first date, you can only imagine what might happen when Nick and Maria get to their iron anniversary.
Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before Nick suspects those tables could be turned on him as well, and he’s being chased through the countryside and small towns by Escobar operatives who’ve been assigned to wipe out anyone with knowledge of the buried millions. This turnabout doesn’t make good character sense, since Del Toro has done such a good job of making you believe that he really is a sweet fellow when it comes to Maria’s happiness. How much more interesting a movie it might have been if Escobar kept treating Nick like a favorite, only intermittently threatened son, instead of suddenly turning on him just to set up a long third-act chase.
Hutcherson plays the one note he’s given capably, if not transfixingly, lacking whatever it would take to convince you that most of his character’s decisions aren’t utter bonehead moves. Whatever fascination the film holds belongs solely to Del Toro and his vanity-free impression of Escobar as a titan whose potbelly and gym shorts do not put the slightest dent in a charisma that hypnotizes a nation. His family-man hypocrisy seems both sincere and hilarious, at least up until the point when ‘Paradise Lost’ determines that Escobar needs to stop pretending not to be a bad guy. For all the tension that gets ratcheted up once the character stuff gets put away, the film still feels like it should have ‘Opportunity Lost’ as its real subhead. [C+]