There’s a good idea floating around somewhere inside Escobar: Paradise Lost. This thriller, about a young Canadian surfer who finds himself tight with infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, starts before Escobar had become Public Enemy No. 1 in his own country, back when he was a popular politician. Showing the allure and gradual corruption of power through the eyes of a third party — sort of a mixture of The Great Gatsby and Scarface — is a solid conceit. But Andrea Di Stefano’s underbaked film doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
Josh Hutcherson is Nick, a young man surfing the waves of Colombia’s beaches with his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) when he meets the beautiful, energetic Maria (Claudia Traisac). She, it turns out, is the niece of Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro), a popular figure who lives on a sprawling hacienda and gives away just enough of his money to maintain the loyalty of the poor citizens of this part of the country. When Nick first sees Escobar, the politico is opening a new clinic for the poor that he’s renovated.
Helicoptered into the man’s elaborate birthday party, Nick gets a sense of the power he’s dealing with: Escobar himself is personable and casual (and, as played by del Toro, he oozes charisma), but he’s surrounded by layers of loyalty. Even his beloved Maria has to ask for an audience with him. When Nick asks Maria how Uncle Pablo makes his money, she replies, cheerfully, “Cocaine!” She then adds that the people in that region have been chewing coca leaves for centuries, and that Escobar just found a way to monetize the stuff.
I’ve met people like this. Not gangsters, necessarily, but powerful figures in often desperately poor locales who inspire fear and affection, usually surrounded by dudes you wouldn’t want to cross. And there’s a lot that Escobar: Paradise Lost gets right: The churn of activity that follows these people everywhere, the constant unease that comes with this kind of power, the sense that you can never quite be comfortable, even though everyone tells you to be. The whole film unfolds in an atmosphere of sweaty, uncertain dread.
But Escobar isn’t really Escobar’s story. It’s Nick’s. And that part isn’t nearly as captivating. Hutcherson, who made an adequate second banana to Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games movies, broods nicely here, but the script hasn’t given him anything interesting to do: He gets sucked into the vortex of power, and then has to do a lot of running and hiding once everything goes to hell. Much of the final act of the film involves a standoff that’s well-staged but curiously uninvolving. In part, that’s because we haven’t spent enough time with Escobar to feel Nick’s disillusionment — if he, in fact, even feels any; and if he doesn’t, then we haven’t really journeyed very far with him at all.
The problem with Escobar: Paradise Lost might actually be that it’s too short. That probably sounds crazy — this is a two-hour movie, after all — but the film needs scope and scale to match its ambitions. Right now, it gives us an intriguing look at Pablo Escobar, then asks us to settle for a story about the bland, thinly written Nick. Maybe, at a more epic length, or even as a mini-series, it might have been able to follow the entanglement of these two characters more effectively — to trace Nick’s journey from impressionable gringo to desperate pawn, and Pablo Escobar’s from folk hero to international monster. But in its current state, Escobar: Paradise Lost, as promising as it often is, feels like two barely connected half-movies.