SAVAGES Review

After watching Savages, Oliver Stone's latest directorial effort, it seems he may have watched one too many Tony Scott films lately. The diverse director whose career I haven't really followed all that closely but have certainly appreciated many of his efforts including his political runs (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, W., and World Trade Center) as well as his more mainstream features that tackle other subject matters (Wall Street, The Doors, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday). I have seen most of these and enjoyed a good number of them especially when Stone really feels passionate about the story he is telling. You can tell from the craft on the screen that he has put a lot of thought into what his audience is going to see. He has studied the subjects intently, if it was some type of biopic or the world in which his story will take place, he does the research and he knows what he is getting himself into. That still rings true when it comes to Savages, but the after effect of the movie as you walk out of the theater is one of slight confusion over what exactly you just witnessed. The highly saturated cinematography may make everyone on screen look gorgeous and sultry but the drug-dealing, and surprisingly overly familiar storyline become an incoherent mess right from the get-go. Not all is horrible as the film contains several redeeming qualities and even a few moments throughout that made me want to re-evaluate the film completely, but by the time the credits began to roll I was back to the fact that the movie, like its main characters, needed that something more to feel like it might reach its full potential.

Elena (Salma Hayek) and Lado (benicio Del Toro) are
some pretty dangerous drug runners in Savages
If you haven't paid any attention to the marketing campaign for this piece then you might be shocked to learn this whole situation revolves around a three-way love affair. Based on author Don Winslow's 2010 novel of the same name Savages tells the story of two friends from Laguna Beach who also happen to be some kind of genius pot growers. They attract the interest of some serious cartel's south of the border and from here get into more trouble than they can handle. Apparently, the stuff that Ben, (Aaron Johnson who you'll recognize from Kick-Ass) a peaceful and charitable buddhist who double majored in business and botany, crafted is of its own variety and stands to be more potent and rare than anything else on the market. As our narrator O (Gossip Girl's Blake Lively) informs us, Ben takes 99% of the violence out of the drug business while that remaining one percent is handled by his best friend Chon (Taylor Kitsch of John Carter and Battleship). Chon is a former Navy Seal who joined the service in order to get the best seeds in the world from Afghanistan. In doing so the two have built a lucrative business and have somehow worked out a deal where they share O, which is short for Ophelia, as in the suicidal potential wife of Hamlet in Shakespeare's famous play. How this works between two drastically different guys is never really divulged and is really the center for most of the problems that Savages has in the first place. Oddly enough though, for all the excess of the film the actual relationship between three leads, while seemingly longing to be the most exploited aspect of the film, is actually the most reserved. Where the movie and its director doesn't shy away is in the violence and unpredictability of its several supporting characters. Herein lies the strength of the film as Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta all seem to be having loads of fun here.

Chon (Taylor Kitsch), O (Blake Lively), and Ben
(Aaron Johnson) form the love triangle
at the center of the story.
When the non-confrontational Ben decides to decline an offer from the Baja Cartel to join them, their demented and damaged leader Elena (Hayek) does not take kindly to the news of being told no. In order to get the boys and their business right where she wants them she has her heavy handed enforcer Lado (Del Toro) kidnap O and hold her for ransom until Ben and Chon decide to comply with her wishes. This naturally doesn't sit well with the short tempered Chon and it freaks the hell out of the non-violent Ben. It is hard to see where these guys became friends in the first place, but Stone is lucky to have nabbed Johnson for the role of Ben. Johnson is a gifted, if not slightly strange presence that matches the mystique necessary to bring Ben into a real, relatable human being for the audience. On the other hand we have Kitsch who has suffered two major flops so far this year, only one of which seeming to suffer more because of his performance. I was hoping Kitsch would redeem himself here though, and he certainly has. The weak link ends up being Lively as she neither has the credibility or the range to pull off a character who is so sure of herself in her sexuality and so commanding a presence that she should take charge of any situation immediately. In many ways, from what I've gathered about the source material O should be almost as unapologetic a character as Chon. Lively can't hold her own here though, especially when paired up with Hayek who is on fire here in every scene. Lively comes off as more a timid, spoiled, and annoying dumb blonde; a girl who conforms to the ways of what she just watched on MTV rather than the woman who does what she wants to do with no regard for what others think of her. It doesn't help that Lively carries the duty of relaying the story because it exposes her weaknesses within the part and makes the audience question why the two male leads might risk so much for a character we can hardly care about.

Dennis (John Travolta) is a dirty DEA-agent who
is always putting himself first.
Unfortunately, I was unable to read the novel on which this is based before venturing out to the theater to see it. I have to wonder if the transition from page to screen has taken simply the core elements of the story and flashed them across a canvas with careless execution. I would like to believe differently considering this is an Oliver Stone picture and I really do find him an interesting director, but that seems to be the case here. I was anxious, eager even to see this kind of return to the realm of Natural Born Killers for Stone, but Savages doesn't push the envelope in the right ways and instead ends up lingering as a piece of mayhem that involves the unnecessary and disappoints with the short-ended nature with how it treats us to a deeply corrupted and evil world. Only briefly pulling back the curtain completely to give us glimpses of things we don't want to see, but can't help but not look away from. Most of these scenes that in fact do succeed, and do redeem the film from its wallowing love story are the ones that involve an intimidating and unpredictable Benicio Del Toro. This is the kind of role Del Toro has perfected over the years whether it be in The Usual Suspects or Traffic, but he plays it so well he scores every time. I really wish this guy would do more. As for Travolta who portrays a dirty DEA-agent playing both sides of the game he just seems to be having a blast while running circles around the new, young guns who think they know everything and slickly navigating his way around Lado's unnerving interrogations. The three veteran actors here raise the material to the heights I hoped this film was going to originally surpass. The ideas are here, the execution is so sloppy though it turns a movie that could have been a grizzly account of real life drug dealers into a tale of a degenerating world that has long lost its grip on even the most senseless of inhabitants.