A film review by Craig J. Koban July 11, 2012

SAVAGES jj

2012, R, 129 mins.

 

Chon: Taylor Kitsch / O: Blake Lively / Ben: Aaron Johnson / Dennis: John Travolta / Lado: Benicio Del Toro / Elena: Salma Hayek

Directed by Oliver Stone / Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Stone, based on the novel by Winslow

I don’t like it when films cheat.  I really don’t...especially with their endings.  Oliver Stone’s drug-fuelled action thriller SAVAGES really cheats audiences in that respect.   

The 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. 

For 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 us).   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. 

SAVAGES 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.  Chon (JOHN  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 “wargasms”….ouch).  His buddy is Ben (Aaron Johnson), an educated and far less battle hardened dude that’s the brains of their mutually shared pot grow op.   

 

 

Their 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. 

One 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?). 

The 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 unease. 

I 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 nonsense. 

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