It’s always good to see Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta in movies, and here we have both together even if it’s for a scene or two. No matter what successes or failures their films have they always give it their best—they are seemingly more apt to be uniquely and effectively shaped and molded in the hands of talented directors—and it seems to make a difference on screen. Excluding Battleship Earth (2000) for Travolta. This is director Oliver Stone’s 19th feature film included amongst Oscar winners Wall Street (1987), Platoon (1986) and JFK (1991). And he’s almost up to his usual tricks, with that bag of mixed mediums and styles he likes to fast-cut and slow down to, like music videos from back in the day, while trying to deliver something I suspect he thinks is “cool.” Like long Guns and Roses videos from Use Your Illusion I and II. Savages though is a bit more tepid in style for Stone than I would have expected. The script is adapted by screenwriter Shane Salerno (Shaft (2000), AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator Requiem (2007)) from the crime novel of the same name by author Don Winslow who also had a hand in the adaptation along with Stone. Now I like crime films adapted from crime books (L.A. Confidential (1997) so long as there’s crime. And with a title like Savages, and from the creator of Scarface (1983), you might expect something like that.
The Story: Former gun-toting S.E.A.L. Chon, played by Taylor Kitsch, the guy who’s had back-to-back films deemed failure’s at the box office—John Carter, Battleship—teams with his Berkeley grad friend Ben, played by Kick-Ass (2010) star Aaron Johnson, to grow and produce the “best weed the world has ever seen.” This is a quote from their shared girlfriend O, short for Ophelia, as in Hamlet’s Ophelia, played here by The Town’s (2010) Blake Lively. That’s right, shared girlfriend. All three, living together in a nasty mansion in Southern California, overlooking the Pacific ocean...chain smoking their craft like cigarettes. Their only conflict is they want out of the business just as a Mexican drug cartel wants to partner with them, trying to make them a deal they can’t refuse.
The Goods: Stone does a good job assembling a star cast which also includes Selma Hayek as the cartel’s leader, Elena. Things seem to be building decently with one conflict after another until exactly at the turn of the first act the cartel decide to kidnap O for safe keeping, or until the partnership is completed on their terms. Chon however gets his S.E.A.L. team involved and plots to get O back, regardless of bloodshed or damage done to the business relations. As the trailer advertises, it’s two young dudes going up against a drug cartel. And it is pretty much just that, with the help of Chon’s ex-Afghanistan military friends. Life loving, herbal botanist and peaceful lover Ben isn’t use to the kind of violence Chon is. There’s a character arc for him that has him dealing with this as best he can—though thoughts of O and getting her back from killers is a worthy goal to shape up, chin up and grow a pair. The money these guys have, the business they run (for medicinal purposes), and the military friends they have give them an “indie” edge in their business, say versus the corporation, that as is referenced in the film and is an intoxicating subject matter for Stone to tackle. Filled with a lot of promise…and that promise is there.
The Flaws: But I resort back to “tepid.” Stone who is not generally a guy who does things lightly does almost just that. Coming from the blood spree and violence of his Natural Born Killers (1994) you might expect him to take it to the limit here. And stylistically he generally does that too, as in U-Turn (1997); though to such an extreme in that Sean Penn vehicle that it diluted the story and that film’s entertainment. Nevertheless, I can’t say Savages does the same as U-Turn either so it’s a bit confounding just exactly as to why the film ultimately doesn’t work. Until you realize that it’s just all about character development.
O mentions at one point that it feels like they are in “that Paul Newman movie” Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969), the three of them sort of “on the run.” But Savages is nothing like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid because the film doesn’t solely revolve around Ben and Chon’s exploits. It cuts to Elena, and Del Toro’s Lado, and O’s incarceration in a make-shift cell for such lengthy, though fun to watch, sequences that it steals from Ben and Chon just as the cartel are trying to steal from them; we the audience feel a bit ripped off. Even though it’s not as obvious as lower grade, lower budget films that rip us off. The trappings of rich cars and money and drugs and double-crossing should be what keeps us distracted in a crime film but we only get kibbles of these when we should get a Michael Mann size candy store (see Miami Vice (2006) the movie).
The other thing is O’s voice-over throughout the film. She’s not a girl who went to college or lived an experienced life so her soliloquies of exposition and description are not smart or richly potent. What she says and how she says it is rather drab (I get the sense the novel probably goes into great depth detailing how Ben, Chon and O are examples of a youthful American generation that feel some sort of sense of accomplishment without a life fully lived, as their age disputes wisdom and their inability to escape floundering vilifies success). I equate O’s voice-over to that which we might see in films like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), Sleepover (2004) or Mean Girls (2004) (the latter being the better of these films) instead of Joe Gillis’ V.O. in Sunset Boulevard (1950), or even Henry Hill’s V.O. in Goodfellas (1990). It’s a tone that is for a different demographic than what Savages is selling. That touch of naïve young girl climate throws this crime film way out of whack.
And Stone’s style of unrealistic bright cinematography in real world scenarios that generally puts a staged, theatrical, satirical commentary on life events in his films like W (2008), JFK and Natural Born Killers doesn’t work here. In this supposed-to-be-gritty world, the way images are staged, lit and photographed, the Stone intuition is out of place. Looking at the happy, closed endings and “pleasantness” of Savages and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), compared to say Any Given Sunday (1999), I get the impression Stone is a happier man these days. Maybe he should make a kids’ movie.
The Call: With Savages I say stow the dough. It lacks all of the complexities and nuances of an Oliver Stone film making it confusing; this should be a balanced meal surrounding a $40 steak. Instead Savages is like a school cafeteria lunch—bland, no pizzazz, and it looks the same on everybody's plate. It’s cool to see Travolta’s F.B.I. agent Dennis and Del Toro’s cartel character Lado as they squirm in their relative underworld rolls (Hayek too as a crime family ring leader is descent). But Savages starts with the idea of three kids producing “the world’s best” dope, three against the world, going up against the man, and instead derails from a lack of character development and proper tone.
Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout. Running time is a long 2 hours and 11 minutes.
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