There are two competing types of films occurring in Escobar: Paradise Lost, and it’s a good thing the film opens with a scene that takes place between the two. The first half of the film is pure flashback setup that encompasses years, while the second half is a solidly gripping thriller covering roughly half a day.
The film opens in 1991, with notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Benecio Del Toro) agreeing to turn himself in to serve a prison sentence. Before he does that, though, he wants to hide as much of his vast fortune as possible. He assembles several people, including young Nick (Josh Hutcherson), to drive to different areas, hide some boxes in caves, seal the entrances and kill the locals who guide them to the caves. It’s clear that Nick doesn’t want to be involved, so how did this innocent-looking young man (who’s Canadian, just to make him extra sweet) get involved in Escobar’s group?
That’s the question the first half of the film answers. Nick is shown arriving in Medellín with his brother (Brady Corbet), working as a surf instructor and fighting off men who claim to own the beach where the brothers are camping. Then Nick meets a local girl named Maria (Claudia Traisac), who just happens to be the niece of Escobar. Most of the first half of the film alternates between lovey-dovey scenes with the young couple, and scenes of Nick talking with Escobar about various issues, issues that seem to be resolved rather quickly after talking with Escobar. Neither Nick nor Maria pay too much attention to Escobar’s criminal activity.
Eventually, though, the couple decides it may be best to get away. That, of course, is when the film catches up to the opening scene. After Nick realizes he can’t follow through with the whole murder request, he figures out that he himself is a target for murder.
Even though Escobar’s name is in the title, the film clearly follows Nick, who is (very) roughly based on a real person in Escobar’s life. Hutcherson brings a naïve understanding of things to Nick, similar in many ways to his Hunger Games performances. Hutcherson does a fine enough job, but honestly, Del Toro is by far the more interesting performer. If anything, his performance suggests that the film is focusing on the wrong character. Escobar is mysterious enough to drive a film plot, and Del Toro’s performance emphasizes this point.
All in all, Escobar: Paradise Lost manages to work as well as it ultimately does thanks to a brisk and engaging second half. It’s enough to make up for some of the flabbiness of the film’s first half, though it does raise some questions about what would make this film work better.