‘Escobar: Paradise Lost’: Benicio del Toro compelling in a thin drug thriller

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By Kerry Lengel | Gannett News service

An unassuming surfer from Canada moves to the coast of Colombia to set up a small business with his older brother. He meets a local girl, falls in love and gets engaged. Then, he finally thinks to ask his fiancee about her uncle, a popular civic leader and politician.

“Where does he get his money?”

“Cocaine,” comes the matter-of-fact reply.

The rich uncle is Pablo Escobar, the now-notorious head of the Medellín Cartel. In the thriller “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” he’s played by Benicio del Toro, a casting choice that will be worth a chuckle to fans of “Entourage.”

Season 4 of HBO’s Hollywood satire revolved around the making of an Escobar biopic titled “Medellín,” and Del Toro’s name was dropped as fictional playboy actor Vincent Chase’s chief competition for the lead role.

No doubt, Del Toro is much more convincing as Escobar than Adrian Grenier was in the fake scenes from “Medellín,” especially when you compare the two actors’ commands of the Spanish language. Still, given that Josh Hutcherson (Peeta from the “Hunger Games”) — the actor who plays Nick, the Canadian kid — bears a passing resemblance to “Entourage’s” Kevin Connolly, the sense of art imitating art imitating life is an unfortunate distraction. Heck, “Escobar” even has its own violent scene involving a soccer ball.

Taken on its own terms, this isn’t a bad little movie. “Escobar” is the directorial debut for Italian-born Andrea di Stefano, who shows some promise even if his first effort is slight cinematic fare.

Early scenes follow the familiar beats of a married-to-the-mob drama. Nick, naive and besotted with the beautiful María, is a bit in awe of Escobar, a charismatic figure who, like any movie godfather worthy of being called patrón, paints himself as a devoted family man. But suspense mounts with each new clue pointing toward a darker reality.

After a predictable opening hour, “Paradise Lost” manages to deliver a surprise or two as it switches gears into a full-on thriller. But it never gets close to the epic heights to which it aspires.

Del Toro is compelling as an enigmatic patriarch who’s always intimidating, even when bopping around in gym shorts, yet he’s not on-screen enough to etch a character study of iconic status. On the other hand, Hutcherson’s Nick is hardly a character at all. We know he’s basically a good guy who loves his girlfriend and that’s about it, so it’s hard to feel invested in his moral dilemmas or even with his ultimate fight to survive.

Still, the climactic showdown is exciting and convincing, and the evocative closing images, at long last, stir deeper emotion than the formulaic opening. They just might earn Di Stefano another shot at the director’s chair.

[s3r star=2.5/4]

Radius-TWCpresents a film written and directed by Andrea Di Stefano. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R (for violence including grisly images). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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