There's a scene in Escobar: Paradise Lost where Josh Hutcherson's character, a surfer-turned-reluctant-criminal Nick Brady, completely breaks down. He's in a car with someone he's supposed to kill, but he can't do it. He grabs the guy's face, and, in tears and near convulsion, he yells, "You have to leave! You have to get your family and leave!" The guy just smiles at him, with a chuckle ready to follow.
And you really can't blame the guy. You'd smile, too.
Escobar: Paradise Lost is about, obviously, notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, played by Benicio del Toro, who's the only actor alive today who should ever play Pablo Escobar. But to say that it's "about" Pablo Escobar is misleading—writer-director Andrea Di Stefano's film is only ostensibly about Pablo Escobar. It's really the story of Nick Brady, a Canadian do-gooder who's living on a beach in Colombia in the late 1980s with his brother (Brady Corbet) and who meets the beautiful and friendly Maria (Claudia Traisac). Nick quickly falls in love with Maria, and she the same with him, so it's inevitable that Nick will meet her family, specifically her uncle, "Uncle Pablo." It doesn't take long for Nick and Maria to get engaged and for the "gringo" to move into Escobar's massive hacienda/kingdom. And for Nick to see just how Uncle Pablo makes all of his money. And for Nick to realize he's in way too deep.
Chubby and scruffy, del Toro let himself go physically to embody the famous Colombian kingpin, but the actor reined himself back where it counts. He plays Escobar as soft-spoken and approachable, the fun-loving bear of an uncle all little girls love to have in their family, and to Nick he's supportive and welcoming. The greatness in del Toro's performance, however, is that he's able to frequently undercut that disarming warmth with mere looks in his eyes and dialogue deliveries. In one scene, Nick tells Pablo that some goons who've been bothering he and his brother are dead, knowing that Pablo's the reason why they've flat-lined yet, still, commenting, "Thank god." The way del Toro menacingly replies with "Thank god?" is a chilling record-skip moment.
You wish Escobar: Paradise Lost had more like it. Instead, Di Stefano keeps del Toro's Escobar mostly in the background—it's the Josh Hutcherson show, and that's the film's biggest problem. Hutcherson is a capable enough actor in the right projects, like in the Hunger Games movies, where he's expected to do minor lifting alongside Jennifer Lawrence and the franchise's inherently compelling universe. But in Escobar: Paradise Lost, he, like his character, is in way over his head. In the scenes he shares with del Toro, Hutcherson is outmatched and left to stare wide-eyed at his larger-than-life co-star. When it's time for him to grab a gun and become a ill-prepared survivalist in the film's tense final act, Hutcherson gives the role his all but he's clearly straining. Some of that strain has to do with Di Stefano's logic-light script, which requires Hutcherson to make Nick not seem like a dumbass for taking so long to see Escobar's true colors.
A shame, too, since Escobar: Paradise Lost's final third does, despite its implausiblities, turn surprisingly hardcore. Di Stefano, a first-time feature director, skillfully escalates the gun-toting Nick's descent into a seemingly inescapable Colombian hell with an unwavering grimness that's refreshing. They're in for a rude awakening, though—a scene involving a teary-eyed phone call, in particular, has an all-is-lost feeling that's reminiscent of several key moments in Breaking Bad's fourth season. Hutcherson is a long way from his PG-13 YA machine. It's written all over the other men's blood splattered across his face.
It's easy to understand why Di Stefano and company cast him in the first place—thanks to The Hunger Games, Hutcherson is a draw. The prospect of seeing him in a young-love scenario like the one at Escobar: Paradise Lost's center should be enough to generate box office returns. Those who see this frequently effective but mostly underwhelming crime flick for that reason, though, will exit the movie shell-shocked, while everyone who's rightfully intrigued by Benicio del Toro's spot-on casting will leave unfulfilled. The only people who'll be smiling like Nick Brady's car companion will be Josh Hutcherson and his handlers.
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