"whenever Del Toro is on screen, it’s always gripping"
The title may suggests that this film is about notorious Colombian criminal Pablo Escobar who, at one point, ran a drug smuggling empire that was estimated to be worth $30US billion.
However, writer/director Andrea Di Stefano uses Canadian surfer Nico (Josh Hutcherson) as our guide into Escobar (Benicio Del Toro)’s world as after falling for Pablo’s niece (Claudia Traisac). Nico is initially in awe of the charismatic and powerful Senator but things slowly unravel as the (very) dark elements of Escobar’s world soon become apparent.
Structuring the film in this way presents two main problems. Firstly, it’s all too familiar as the naïve Nico commences a descent into a personal hell. From the glamourous side of the money and power springs the unpleasant underbelly – a tale told all too often. Coded talks about trust, glimpses of the results of violence, the death of local gang members who attack Nico followed by Escobar laying the guilt at Nico’s feet – everything feels familiar and somewhat signposted.
Secondly, this removes the focus from Escobar himself. While on one hand it’s about the almost God-like presence of the man even when he is not physically there - and boy does Del Toro make you feel it when he is on screen - the overall feeling is that there is a more interesting film to be made here. While the focus is on Nico and his escape, we learn little about how Escobar built up his wealthy cartel, why he was so loved by so many of the populace, and how it all came crashing down around him. Come the end, you also wonder quite why the gang are so focused on Nico when, in the greater scheme of things, he is somewhat insignificant.
That is not to say there aren’t some tense and emotional scenes, a somewhat open ending and, whenever Del Toro is on screen, it’s always gripping. But when he isn’t, you start to wonder why Escobar is not a more central figure in his own story.