Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: "Escobar: Paradise Lost"

"Escobar: Paradise Lost" tells a fictionalized, but compelling, tale about real-world Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar as seen through the eyes of a naive foreigner. It starts out a little too kiss-kiss and ends up with an overabundance of bang-bang, but it's a solid and engaging drama anchored by a top-notch performance from Benicio del Toro.

Josh Hutcherson, best known from the "Hunger Games" movies, executive-produced and stars as Nick, a young Canadian who comes down to Colombia with his brother, Dylan (Brady Corbet), to set up a little surf shop and waystation on the pristine beaches.

He runs into Maria (an effervescent Claudia Traisac), who's overseeing the construction of a new clinic in the nearby village, and they soon become a thing. Nick knows her uncle is somebody important, because he's paying for the clinic and has big Stalinist posters of himself all over town.

Maybe a politician, he figures.

Then he's invited to Escobar's massive hacienda, a beacon of Versailles extravagance amid the squalid villages, and asks Maria where the family money comes from. "Cocaine," she answers nonchalantly.

In her world, an economic system based on sending drugs to the U.S. seems perfectly respectable. The people all love Escobar for his good works, he's a dedicated family man, and even the police and local government officials go along with his seemingly benevolent will.

Slowly Nick gets swallowed up by the family business, until he realizes he's reached the proverbial point of "in too deep" and is asked to do some horrific things himself.

Del Toro is just mesmerizing in the title role. He plays Escobar as a quietly charismatic man, who treats family like royalty and employees like family -- until, that is, the danger they represent to him outweighs their usefulness. Then he and his minions could be capable of the most stomach-churning brutality.

For instance, when Nick and his brother first set up shop they're beset by the local toughs who want them to pay for protection. After Escobar becomes aware of their actions, something ... unfortunate befalls them.

With a padded midsection, sleepy eyes and a variety of disguises to hide out from the authorities when needed, Escobar is a chameleon in form and his emotions, too. All of his interactions are polite, he displays seemingly genuine concern for Nick and his niece -- but he never fails to make it clear who's in charge.

Carlos Bardem, brother of Javier, is terrific and terrifying as one of Escobar's chief henchmen, who eventually gets sicced on Nick. The last third or so of the movie is him on the run, and while the chase is pulse-pounding at times, it goes on for way too long.

Writer/director Andrea Di Stefano is a veteran Italian actor stepping behind the camera for the first time. While he shows some jitters in terms of pacing, he certainly seems to know how to elicit sincere performances from his cast.

This cinematic version of Pablo Escobar is so frightening precisely because del Toro makes him seem so disturbingly plausible.

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