A Canadian surfer finds himself in the deadliest closeout of his life — on dry land — in “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” which imagines that downfall of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (played by Benicio Del Toro) as seen through the eyes of a naive acolyte drawn into his web. The directorial debut of veteran Italian actor Andrea di Stefano (“The Prince of Homburg,” “Eat Pray Love”), “Escobar” offers an odd mix of action movie, romantic melodrama and cautionary traveler’s tale, which works better than it should thanks to Del Toro’s fascinating performance and Di Stefano’s assured, muscular helming. Pickled up during production by Weinstein Co. subsidiary Radius, this smarter-than-average genre pic (scheduled for a Nov. 26 release) could prove a robust performer in niche theatrical and VOD play, especially if it connects with the large and underserved Latino moviegoing crowd.
It’s fitting that Di Stefano took pause to note the presence of Francis Coppola in the audience for the film’s Telluride world premiere, since one needn’t look too hard to see the lipstick traces of both “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” in “Escobar,” which depicts its eponymous antihero as something of a cross between Don Corleone and Col. Kurtz — a charismatic but corrupted man, grown weary with age, who knows his time has come but won’t go quietly into that dark night. When the movie begins in June 1991, Escobar is between a rock and a hard place, having surrendered to the authorities and on the eve of being incarcerated in La Catedral (the luxe Medellin prison built to Escobar’s own specifications). About to leave the country with his girlfriend in tow, twentysomething Canadian Nick (Josh Hutcherson) is summoned to Escobar’s private compound, where the kingpin asks several trusted intimates to help him hide large chunks of his massive estate, far away from the government’s prying eyes.
At first, it’s unclear how and why this white, fresh-faced North American has penetrated Escobar’s inner circle, but “Escobar” then flashes back to “a few years earlier” and begins to unravel the tale. Having decamped to Colombia to teach surf lessons with his injured, ex-surfer brother (Brady Corbet), Nick soon falls for the siren eyes of Escobar’s devoted niece, Maria (beautiful Spanish newcomer Claudia Traisac), a nurse passing through town as her uncle’s proxy at a new hospital he’s financed.
Their blossoming but bland, faintly Nicholas Sparks-ish courtship brings Nick into Escobar’s world, shown here as a privileged aerie whose inhabitants rather blithely acknowledge the drug money and dead bodies that make it all possible. Yet it’s clear that Escobar (who, in real life, flirted with politics before finding his true metier) very much sees himself as a man of the people, a rebel outlaw in the Robin Hood/Clyde Barrow mold. And despite some initial reservations about the foreign interloper in his midst, as Nick and Maria’s relationship deepens, so, too, does Escobar’s trust in the young man (whom he takes to calling Nico), and vice versa. By the time the movie catches back up to the chaotic fervor of 1991, Escobar is prepared not only to charge Nick with the dispersal of his estate, but with the murder of the small-town campesino who’s supposed to helped Nick hide the loot in a remote mountain cave.
Escobar doesn’t much like loose ends, it seems, and it’s one of the weaknesses of Di Stefano’s screenplay that it takes Nick (and Maria) much longer than the audience to figure out that, by this logic, he himself is soon to end up in the crosshairs. It helps that Hutcherson cuts an appealing figure in his first major, post-“Hunger Games” leading role, convincingly naive (in the way of so many tourists who make unintended headlines when they travel to dangerous parts of the world), lovestruck, and susceptible to Escobar’s toxic charms. But it’s only once the the tables have turned, and Nick finds himself pursued by all manner of heavily armed Escobar minions, that the movie really hits its stride, effectively becoming one long, sustained, technically impressive action setpiece in which Di Stefano ratchets up the tension to sufficiently anxious levels. (At its best, “Escobar” evokes some of the rat-in-maze despair of James Mason’s hounded IRA leader in Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out.)
From there, the movie barrels through to its refreshingly tough, unsentimental ending with a lean, B-movie economy that does much to compensate for the earlier, erratic shifts in tone. For all its efforts to turn its title character a supporting one “Escobar” is, unsurprisingly, never better than when Del Toro takes center stage. Appearing bearded, heavy and disheveled, keeping his voice in the low, menacing register of someone who doesn’t have to speak loudly to be heard, Del Toro plays the part as a kind of gun-toting Lear — in life and in art, a man who cannot so easily be relegated to the sidelines.