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‘Escobar’ puts focus on wrong character

Let’s say you are creating a film about Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug lord who died in 1993, and whose story could not be more appealing to Hollywood. It’s got it all – drugs, politics, violence, controversy.

Plus, you are fortunate enough to have one of the world’s finest and most compelling actors, Benicio Del Toro, attached to play the man himself.

Would you then decide to make Escobar a supporting player in the film, and focus instead on a dull, fictional Canadian surfer dating his niece? Would you opt against telling how Escobar came to power, and how his life finally came to an end?

If so, the resulting film might look like “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” a lamely titled, clumsily written and directed biopic that wastes a charismatic performance from Del Toro.

There is something to be said for this project even coming together. After all, various feature films on the life of Escobar have been announced over the years.

It is hard to imagine better casting than Del Toro, but after seeing “Paradise Lost,” it is clear that we’re still waiting for the definitive feature film about the “King of Cocaine.”

Yes, Escobar is but a supporting player in “Paradise Lost.” The main character is Nick (or “Nico”), played confidently by “Hunger Games” star Josh Hutcherson.

The film begins in 1991, as the Colombian criminal is preparing to surrender to authorities. He has called together his most trusted men, including Nick, a wide-eyed former surfer who fell in love with Escobar’s niece Maria (Claudia Traisac), and became entrenched.

These tense, early moments are among the film’s best, and promise a fascinating study of power and influence. This promise fades as we cut back in time to Nick and his bro (Brady Corbet) working on the beach. Nick and Maria soon lock eyes from afar, and before we know it the couple is visiting uncle Pablo’s estate.

Del Toro’s Escobar is smart, rational and devoted to his family. Perhaps he is too likable, actually, making some of his later actions feel almost out of character.

After a pedestrian hour of Nick’s furrowed brow, “Paradise Lost” finally picks up its pace for a grim, violent conclusion. Yet by that point it is hard to care about the plight of Nick and Maria. Only Escobar maintains our interest.

And how could he not, as played by a typically awards-worthy Del Toro? This is his best role since Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” and he commands the screen. Hutcherson does a nice job of matching Del Toro’s intensity, and his decision to make this film can be applauded; he would be smart to follow the Robert Pattinson path of choosing offbeat projects with major filmmakers.

“Paradise Lost” helmer Andrea Di Stefano is not a major filmmaker, rather a young Italian actor making his feature directorial debut. Despite the film’s overall failure, it does indicate some cinematic talent.

But the crucial decision to make Escobar a secondary figure in the tale is an insurmountable problem.

Perhaps the story of Pablo Escobar is simply too large and messy to be chronicled in one feature. While it might be said that the focus of “Paradise Lost” on one time period is not unwise, the film serves only to frustrate by attempting to look beyond the most interesting man onscreen.

That’s not very smart, and neither is “Escobar.”

Escobar: Paradise Lost

2 stars

Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Benicio Del Toro, Brady Corbet

Director: Andrea Di Stefano

Running time: 120 minutes

Rating: R for violence.

The Lowdown: A surfer meets the woman of his dreams – and then he meets her uncle, infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.

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