Benicio Del Toro saves Escobar from itself

Del Toro does not disappoint as the infamous drug baron, a role he’s been prepping for forever. But this film suffers from the Last King of Scotland syndrome.

Benicio del Toro
There’s nothing more cinematic than a bad guy. In fact, there’s nothing more cinematic than an evil drug baron. It’s what has led to the undying popularity of films like Scarface and Blow: audiences love seeing guys get crazy rich off illegal business that pisses off the government. By that logic, there should already be a ton of Pablo Escobar movies out there. Since his death in 1993, Escobar’s name has essentially become shorthand for “drug baron,” a fearsome though personable figure who inspires both jealousy and revulsion in people. (It was even an ongoing joke on Entourage, for fuck’s sake; if that’s not the definition of low-hanging fruit…) I’ve heard vague rumblings of Benicio del Toro being cast as Escobar for almost 15 years — it seems that this idea came up as early as del Toro’s Oscar win in 2001. It turns out that the development hell that afflicted those projects was the best case scenario Escobar: Paradise Lost could hope for, both positively and negatively.

Generic white guy & friend
Generic white guy & friend

Escobar: Paradise Lost operates under the Last King of Scotland’s pretense that audiences cannot properly understand historical monsters unless they are presented through the eyes of generic white guys. This time that generic white guy is Nick (Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian surfer who has come to Colombia with his brother (Brady Corbet) in search of tasty waves, tubular weed and other such things that surfers are looking for (sunglasses?). He soon falls in love with Maria (Claudia Traisac), a local village girl whose uncle also happens to be Pablo Escobar (Del Toro). The villagers are quick to sweep Escobar’s more villainous actions under the rug since they’ve brought economic prosperity to the village and Nick is welcomed by the large, closely-knit Escobar entourage. When the shit hits the fan, however, he’s only an obstacle that stands in the way of Escobar’s freedom.

Pablo Escobar takes a supporting role in his own movie, lurking in the shadows for most of the film. Del Toro has made himself scarce in the last few years, preferring showy supporting roles (Guardians of the Galaxy, Savages) to more subtle leads. While the size of this part isn’t significantly larger, it hearkens back to some of his best roles. Escobar can be gregarious and welcoming one minute, then turn cold-hearted and poisonous the next. Doughy, hairy and always a little sleepy-looking (even when ordering the execution of his own men!), del Toro resembles nothing less than a bear — seemingly cuddly from a distance, but murderous at close range. The only difference is that it’s very clear who’s more afraid of whom here.

The brilliance of del Toro’s performance only throws the schematic nature of the rest of the film into sharper relief. Once the shit hits the fan, Escobar: Paradise Lost becomes a fairly conventional (though brutally violent) thriller that sees Nick chased by a seemingly infinite number of generic cartel members. No matter how many complications director Andrea di Stefano (an actor making his directorial debut) throws at his main character, no matter how many characters are established only to be brutally executed, no matter how many times it seems all hope is lost, none of it is ever as compelling as Escobar grinning his Big Bad Wolf grin. His characterization is such a perfect monstrous villain that no amount of horror perpetrated by him can be more interesting than his very being.

I have to give props to di Stefano and his team for not resorting to a simple rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-certain-death biopic; it’s a tired structure that does its subject no favours. Focusing on one chunk of a subject’s life often gives better insight than ticking off the boxes, except the subject here isn’t really Escobar, it’s a boring made-up surfer dude played by Peeta from The Hunger Games. Escobar: Paradise Lost isn’t egregiously bad, but it took a gamble against itself and lost. ■
Escobar: Paradise Lost opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) today, Friday, Jan. 16

Watch the trailer here: