Pablo Escobar hasn’t been so alive since the day he died. Twenty-five years after his story came to a notoriously bloody end on a Medellín rooftop, the Colombian drug lord’s grip on the popular imagination only seems to grow: name-checked by rappers, splashed across T-shirts and keychains, lionized in the recent hit Netflix series Narcos — he’s even become the subject of a popular hometown tour, if you have air miles to spare.
And now after long months in release purgatory comes Loving Pablo, a sprawling, violent two-hour biopic starring Javier Bardem as Escobar and Penelope Cruz as his anchorwoman lover Virginia Vallejo. Married for nearly a decade in real life, both actors gamely bring the full heft of their movie-star charisma. But as eminently watchable as their performances are, they feel like diamonds stuck in a tin-plate drama, hamstrung by underdeveloped characters and a telenovela-by-the-numbers script.
As the movie opens, Pablo is already cementing his legend: El Patron with a wife and son and a cocaine empire spreading like gasoline fire across Reagan-era America. (Bardem’s body has also swollen accordingly, his belly heavy and his famous jawline softened to room-temperature butter). But he may not even be as well known as his paramour, a beautiful newscaster with her own bachelorette penthouse and collection of glamorous magazine covers.
Maybe Virginia’s attracted to Pablo’s charitable side; or maybe it’s the sex and the power and the shopping trips to New York. It’s true that her new man does help lift teenage boys out of poverty — mostly by conscripting them in homegrown sicario training camps and paying them to kill his enemies. It doesn’t take long for the couple’s affair to go public, and for another kind of suitor to come around: Peter Sarsgaard’s grim-faced DEA agent.
Escobar’s story hardly lacks for plot points, and director Fernando León de Aronaoa (Mondays in the Sun) hits them all obligingly, if broadly. What he doesn’t carve out much room for is richer character motivations or context. When those moments do come, they live mostly in the margins: Bardem’s carved-granite head half-submerged in pool water, a patient alligator in wait; the expressions that pass across Cruz’s panicked face as she tries desperately to calibrate her next move.
Otherwise, Loving just leaves the viewer with some Dynasty-wardrobe fun, a whole lot of murder-he-wrote (death by Doberman, by chainsaw, by motorbike drive-by), and the specter of a legend whose inner world we’ll never really know.