A film review by Craig J. Koban July 11, 2012
2012, R, 129 mins.
2012, R, 129 mins.
Chon: Taylor Kitsch /
O: Blake Lively /
Ben: Aaron Johnson /
Dennis: John Travolta /
Lado: Benicio Del Toro /
Elena: Salma Hayek
don’t like it when films cheat. I
with their endings. Oliver
Stone’s drug-fuelled action thriller SAVAGES really cheats
audiences in that respect.
screenplay – adapted by Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow from
Winslow’s book of the same name - goes to great lengths to string viewers
along for its expository-heavy two-plus hours towards a conclusion that
seems to achieve some level of tragic profundity.
The unforgivable sin, though, that Stone commits is that he
misdirects us into thinking that it’s the actual climax when it’s
not, and then provides for the actual actual finale.
I love when films lead us on smart, nimble and sure-footing cat and
mouse chases through their labyrinthine narratives, never letting on where
they’re heading, but all Stone does in SAVAGES is build to a fateful and
adequate resolution, only to recoil back on
itself and offer a different, more audience-friendly one.
I cry foul.
a keen and astute directorial veteran like Stone – who has achieved
greatness in his career making films like PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF
JULY, JFK, NATURAL BORN KILLERS,
and NIXON – to allow himself to wallow in such dissatisfying cinematic
bait and switch tricks is mournful, to say to least.
On a positive note, SAVAGES is a refreshingly straight laced,
apolitical, and modest film for the typically out-spoken and controversial
filmmaker (it’s a somewhat liberated effort in the sense that Stone is not
trying to sermonize any agenda outside of a yearning to just entertain
Yet, for as much technical precision and know-how that Stone
reliably brings to the table here – the film looks good – he never
once transcends the drug-trafficking thriller genre.
Instead of infusing in it with an incisive bite, Stone just seems to be
hurriedly going through the motions.
is also a bromance, a romance, and a love triangle picture between two
drug dealers and their floozy girlfriend without the complications that
usually derive from the latter.
The floozy in question is Ophelia or “O” - as she likes to be
called - (Blake Lively) that narrates the film, initially hinting in the
beginning that she might be doing so from the grave, ala SUNSET BOULEVARD.
She’s a free-spirited hippie chick with the prototypical
Californian good looks that’s in love with two men; they, in turn, are
in love with her and neither seems to have any problem with sharing her.
CARTER’s Taylor Kitsch) is a brooding, hulking, and
fidgety Afghan war veteran that’s still sporting emotional scars (when
he has sex with O, she reveals that while she has “orgasms”, he has
buddy is Ben (Aaron Johnson), an educated and far less battle hardened
dude that’s the brains of their mutually shared pot grow op.
pot is in very high (no pun intended) demand, mostly because of its
deliriously strong THC component (based on seeds that Chon smuggled back
from Afghanistan). A Mexican cartel that is headed up by the vicious and
ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) wants in on a larger piece of the boys’
action. She dispatches her
lawyer (played by the great Latino actor of A
BETTER LIFE, Demian Bichir) to arrange a meeting with Chon and Ben
to negotiate a long-term business deal. Alas, the pot growers want to go legit and quit the business
while they’re on top. This
enrages Elena, so she sends out her ape-shit-crazy
henchmen, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O to convince Chon and Ben to
reconsider. Realizing that
they can’t live the rest of their lives knowing that O’s dead – and
further understanding that any long-term business deals with a murderous
cartel will eventually lead to all of their deaths – Chon and Ben hatch
a devious plan of their own to get the love of their lives back.
major problem with SAVAGES' screenplay is that it takes an awfully long,
long time to get its narrative gears going.
When it does not drown us with elaborate and monotonous expository
scenes (there are just too many moments of characters talking and talking
and talking – oftentimes via Skype – about motivations and plans) we have
to listen to Lively’s dull and tired voiceover track that never seems to
tease or peak our interest as much as it thinks it does.
Even thornier is that, when all is said and done, Chon, Ben, and O
are not really agreeable characters worthy or our rooting compulsion.
Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively are all limitlessly attractive human
specimens and are perfectly adequate in their roles, but they seem like
personality-free drones that simply never emerge as compelling personas
that we want to care about. Their
chemistry as well seems more manufactured than genuine; even the multiple
sex scenes (including a potentially erotic ménage et trios) lacks heat
and frustratingly features the men nude, but Lively – for the most part -
fully clothed (huh?).
film is partially hijacked – and perhaps somewhat redeemed – by a
great performance triumvirate that steals every moment away from the
three other aforementioned stars. I
especially liked an all-too-brief, but feisty and droll, performance by
John Travolta playing a DEA agent that has shifty allegiances with both
Chon and Ben along with Elena’s cartel; Travolta shows great relish in
playing an all out duplicitous weasel, which is a nice change of
pace for the actor known for playing collected characters that ooze cool.
Hayek is also an inspired choice as the cartel godfather (or godmother) that has to evoke a caring mother figure alongside a vindictive
sociopath that’s willing to kill anyone in her way.
Finally, Del Toro brings an unpredictable level of menace and
creepy dread as his slime ball assassin that likes to take cell phone pics
of his prey just after he has murdered them in the most grotesque manner
possible. Every moment that
Del Toro is on screen in SAVAGES has a scintillating and foreboding pulse of
just wished that the story around these three great performances was
better and, frankly, made me care more.
It’s not that Stone can't competently handle the action (a
massive, multiple-vehicle heist using IEDs and a grisly encounter with a
highway traffic cop are moments of virtuoso mayhem), but Stone seems
perhaps too reliant on graphic and borderline pornographic carnage and
violence, which seems substituted in for taut suspense.
SAVAGES is a film of great initial promise as a B-grade, trashy,
and grindhouse pot-boiler helmed by an A-grade talent; it
should have been an unqualified home run for the drug thriller genre, especially
considering that it comes from the writer of SCARFACE, an iconic classic
that covers similar thematic terrain. Yet, it never emerges
as a confident or disciplined turn for Stone.
And don’t get me started on that ending again.
Just don’t. I
just hate getting cheated, and Stone should be above that type of