As Donald Trump closes in on the U.S. presidency, it’s worth remembering that the demagogic real-estate mogul is far from the most odious individual to have pursued a career in politics. Take Pablo Escobar, for instance: The notorious drug kingpin briefly served as a congressman in his native Colombia during the early 1980s, before it was decided that his achievements in smuggling cocaine to the United States were incompatible with a role in national government.
The life of Colombia’s most infamous narco-trafficker was so rich and bizarre, it could have been conjured up by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the peak of his reign, Escobar had an estimated net value of $30 billion, enabling him to live in grotesque opulence. He sold himself as a Robin Hood figure, doling out fistfuls of free cash to the poor while presiding over an era of appalling violence. Despite the 6,349 homicides in his hometown of Medellin during 1991, many of the city’s inhabitants continued to see him as a folk hero. Even Trump could learn something about populism from this guy.
It’s hardly surprising that Escobar’s story should eventually make its way to the screen, but trickier to explain the recent profusion of Pablo biopics. “Escobar: Paradise Lost” arrives in Japan on the heels of Netflix series “Narcos,” which cast Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as the drug boss. Javier Bardem and John Leguizamo are both lined up to play the portly drug baron in rival movies next year, while “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua is also working on a film about the Medellin cartel.
Those movies may turn out to be better than “Escobar: Paradise Lost” — actor Andrea Di Stefano’s directorial debut — but they won’t have Benicio del Toro. It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped to play Escobar. The Puerto Rico-born actor may be at least six inches too tall for the role, but the shambling menace he exudes makes him an otherwise perfect fit. With his slurred delivery and waddling gait, he’s like Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone from “The Godfather” reborn as a soccer-loving schlub.
A savvier filmmaker would have stuck with this fascinating creature throughout, but Di Stefano — who also wrote the screenplay — insists that the audience tag along with Nick (Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian surfer who has the misfortune of falling in love with Escobar’s niece, Maria (Claudia Traisac). One moment they’re frolicking innocently on the beach, the next Nick is ordered to take out a hit on someone he’s never met. That’s pretty heavy, dude.
It barely needs stating that this character is a fictional creation. As audience surrogates go, he’s an even flimsier construct than James MacAvoy’s role in Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland,” where he played a Scottish doctor who becomes Idi Amin’s personal physician. At least MacAvoy has a bit of charisma, which is more than you can say about Hutcherson; apart from one standout scene toward the end, he spends the entire film in a narcotized daze that suggests he’s been looking to Keanu Reeves for acting tips.
Di Stefano’s screenplay revolves around Escobar’s final 24 hours of freedom before he turned himself over to the authorities in 1991, while revealing in flashbacks how Nick first became tangled in the Medellin cartel’s affairs. To say that the latter part of the tale feels inessential would be an understatement.
It’s a shame that “Escobar: Paradise Lost” devotes so much screentime to its invented hero, because the portions with del Toro can be very fine indeed. The real-life milieu depicted in the film has the vividness of a waking dream. Escobar’s luxurious estate is home to elephants and the bullet-riddled car once driven by Bonnie and Clyde, and when he surrenders to the authorities, he does it with the pomp of a monarch visiting a soccer field thronging with supporters. When the truth is this engaging, who needs fiction?