The most disappointing thing about “Loving Pablo” is that the Colombians, especially members of the drug cartel, mix their Spanish with a great deal of English. It’s pretty certain that in real life they would not be speaking our language, so the suspicion is that the filmmakers were afraid that a major potential audience would resist reading anything that doesn’t come from their friends on iPhones. Otherwise there is much to praise about the project, including an insight for us into the lives of people with vast sums of money and an array of weaponry that makes the standard police revolver about as potent as a cap pistol.
The movie deals with two realities in the life of Pablo Escobar: one is the cartel he ran in Colombia’s Medellin (now a cleaned-up, renovated tourist attraction); the other is his love first for his family, including his wife and two young children despite his broken promises to abandon the glamourous TV journalist Virginia Vallejo—whose novel has been adapted by writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa—he can’t get enough of Vallejo. (An English language edition of the book will be available May 29 of this year.)
Madrid-born director León’s film résumé includes “A Perfect Day” (aid workers resolve a problem in a conflict zone) and “Mondays in the Sun” (former dockworkers, now unemployed, treat every day as though it were Sunday). He is not the sort of filmmaker interested in small romances.
“Loving Pablo” would be his most glossy film using the epic-style associated with the “Godfather” films given the number of incidents scattered throughout which can satiate action-adventure types of audience members. At the same time the family drama involves a major journalist who loses her job because of her connection with Escobar.
The opening party scene is loaded with glitz. Escobar (Javier Bardem) flies Virginia Vallejo (Penélope Cruz) to his ranch home, making use of her to promote his reputation as a Robin Hood who is interested in feeding and housing the slum kids of the city and the homeless in general. (He will later arm the youths with powerful assault weapons to take out figures of authority as low in status as traffic cops.) She is smitten with the man, though later he will ask her rhetorically whether he would have had a chance with her if he were an ordinary middle-class citizen.
The hands-down best action scene finds Escobar’s men using a large truck to block traffic on a 3-lane highway in Florida to allow a small plane to land with cocaine. His men lug huge bags of the powder for shipment which, when cut and processed will be worth some 30 times more than the raw product. The plane, likely to cost an average person’s lifetime income, is so unimportant to the cartel that it is abandoned on the highway when the powder is trucked away.
When Escobar causes mayhem in Medellín, his slum boys killing anything in a uniform while he, elected to congress, orders a hit on the Minister of Justice after a rousing speech calling for Escobar’s ouster from the House. By the time DEA agent Shepard (Peter Sarsgaard) gets as much information as he can from Vallejo, she is desperate and feels in danger of his life. Crime doesn’t always pay.
Bardem, whose weight was pumped up for the role and who shows off his hanging belly without shame, plays the gangster with a monotone, mumbling much of the time, which could make literate audiences wonder why they could not have seen this picture in Spanish with English subtitles. Despite his speech, he is charismatic, a slimy goon despite the worth of his estate judged to be $30 billion in the 1990s, which would mean that by today’s standards his wealth would rival that of Bill Gates. Just the deal he is able to make with the government in return for turning himself in (he doesn’t stay turned in) is the revocation of the extradition treaty that would allow American agents to seize drug criminals on the grounds that the product is sold in the U.S.
Rated R. 125 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online