The company behind The Two Escobars is ESPN Films, and the influence, coincidentally or not, is tangible. The film has inherited a number of the audio/visual gimmicks that shrewdly, if questionably, keep ESPN viewers baited and attentive—including the contrived, more-than-occasionally silly slow-mo, the music that leaves no emotional response to chance, and the jumpy, neon-tinted reenactments that could have been overseen by an especially adamant admirer of Tony Scott. Subtlety isn’t this film’s strong suit, but it is undeniably trashy and exciting in the tradition of Cocaine Cowboys, which was also nearly too propulsive for its own good.
The titular Escobars are Andrés and Pablo, who are meant, by the film’s construction, as two sides of a cultural coin. Andrés Escobar represents what’s traditionally thought of as the quintessential “American Dream”: a success story who socially ascends through hard, fair work while remembering his humble origins. Andrés is the soccer player who rose to fame in the early 1990s as the poster child of the National, the Colombian team who seemingly came out of nowhere (a cliché that’s used more than once here) to make a run at the 1994 World Cup. The uglier and, let’s face it, more practical side of ambition is embodied by Pablo Escobar, who is, of course, one of the most successful and ruthless drug barons of all time—a man who wielded power that would be unbelievable if it were attributed to a fictional character.
Pablo funded the National—allowing them to become a worldwide powerhouse—as a means of laundering millions of drug dollars, an act that ironically almost rehabilitated Colombia’s global image. Until the National, Colombia was best known for two cultural contributions to the rest of the world: illegal drugs and the considerable bloodshed that follows as an inevitable result. Pablo grew too big, waging wars that too obviously challenged the Colombian and United States governments, and so he was eventually taken down by an organization that was composed of Colombian and U.S. government operatives, along with high-ranking members of rival cartels. Pablo’s killing, the film implies, symbolically destroyed the National, as the country no longer had one crime boss to whom all must answer, but a number of considerably less stable factions that didn’t share Pablo’s affection for the game. The temporary answer to Colombia’s image crisis was veiled corruption. The containment of that corruption—motivated as much by ego and money as it was by justice—led to another, more insidiously chaotic, corruption.
If the above strikes you as a little thematically neat, maybe even a little dangerously generic, then you’ve uncovered another ESPN influence. The appeal of this subject matter is obvious, as it combines two of the most potentially purely exhilarating scenarios the movies routinely give us: the Little Sports Team That Could with the Rise and Fall of the Drug Dealer Who Grew Too Big for His Britches. The stories turn out to go together like peanut butter and jelly, which actually shouldn’t be that surprising, as they share broad commonalities. The underdog sports movie invites the audience to share in a fantasy in which they transcend their current social/financial limitations right along with the usually likeable-yet-bland hero. The drug-runner film, while pretending to decry the bad boy at its center, usually invites the same fantasy association: We secretly respect someone bending society to their will, usually no matter what atrocity we see them commit, because those atrocities don’t affect us directly; that’s “action” that doesn’t hit us to the core, as financial desperation does.
The Two Escobars is an odd movie, a mixture of the sentimental and the extremely cynical. The film portrays Andrés, in the classic ESPN Cinderella tradition, as the definitive homegrown hero, which means that he’s a bit of a stiff. A girlfriend cries for him, teammates testify to his purity, but Andrés is never allowed any calculation or contradiction. Andrés isn’t a man here, but All That Colombia Could Be and Almost Was. That leaves Pablo, who’s so flamboyant he was destined to upstage the rest of the material anyway. Pablo is a calculating killer who leans on the classic Robin Hood ploy: He gives back to the poor, purifying his reputation while emphasizing the government’s impotence in the same stroke.
Films concerned with drug dealers always court power-worship; the profession lends itself too readily to cinematically pleasing if morally dubious actions, but The Two Escobars takes this tendency one step further. It seems to be actively nostalgic for a drug lord as true leader of a country, which is most likely the unintentional result of the flashy, admittedly exciting myth-making, which gums up the film’s social consciousness. The argument seems to be that corruption is inherent anyway, so one might as well settle for the more unified corruption with a nicer benefits package. That implication—in itself—is almost inarguable and could make for a bracingly mature film with larger global reverberations, but it doesn’t wash with the polish and the sentimentality. The parts add up to something you don’t quite trust.