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Are you Team Peeta or Team Pablo? Because, oddly, if you’re interested in learning more about Colombian coke kingpin Pablo Escobar, you shouldn’t buy a ticket to Escobar: Paradise Lost.
Sure, Escobar—or more like his power—plays a significant part in what’s ultimately a violent love story, but what’s really lost is the opportunity for Benicio Del Toro to portray the drug czar in something more than a bloodier Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. (Though, speaking of Havana, Del Toro did take on a meatier role as Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in 2008’s little-seen, little-edited Che.)
Here, Del Toro is part Che, part Wolfman, and occasionally costumed in running shorts as the uncle of Maria (Claudia Traisac), who helps build clinics and other necessities for the poor using family money in the late 1980s. Maria’s innocence is obvious—not only the beaming smiles she gives to goofy Canadian surfer Nick (The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson), but also from the way she flat-out tells Nick, with an actual shrug, that Uncle Pablo makes his money exporting cocaine. Uncle’s villa is so beeyootiful, his family is so beeyootiful, and she’s so in love! What could go wrong, eh?
Maria’s first misstep: going gaga over a personality-free chump just because he brings her flowers and compliments the glass of water he slyly requests so he can stick around. And hey, chump: If your new girlfriend and the whole town worship this Escobar guy, whose image—and, of course, henchmen—watches over everyone on a public banner, and you know he’s a coke trafficker, maybe you should think with your other head.
Soon Nick’s engaged and entrusted, and by the time he realizes his safety is not guaranteed, it’s too late to get out. At this point, first-time writer-director Andrea Di Stefano’s film (which got script help from Francesca Marciano) builds some big-screen-worthy tension, following Nick as he concentrates really hard while simultaneously navigating the mission Escobar gave him and trying to get around it. It’s the night before Escobar is to surrender to police (the film jumps to 1991), and he has a grand plan to protect his assets.
The problem, though—if you haven’t picked up on it—is Hutcherson. For a few scenes, his Hunger Games-honed expressions of panic make him believable as someone who finally realizes he’s in over his head. But not once do you buy Joshy as a dude who can suddenly pick up a gun and yell things like “Don’t be stupid!” as he makes his escape. Traisac, too, is merely a bewildered beauty, but since Maria is underwritten to the point of disrespect, all the actress can do is smile smile smile and then freak freak freak.
Del Toro could have chewed the palm trees to help lift Escobar to total camp; actually, though, he’s rather chilling, with a look that can be alternately interpreted as “I’m going to kill you,” “I’m signaling that guy over there to kill you,” or “Don’t worry, it’s cool.” A late-chapter speech, scene, and frozen last shot, however, calls it: You may consider shedding a tear when the pressure’s on and the blood spills, but by the time the credits roll, you’ll be laughing like you just did a line.
Escobar: Paradise Lost opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up and ArcLight Bethesda.