Vietnam veteran, political obsessive, and stylistic overkill specialist Oliver Stone doesn’t wield the power in Hollywood he once did in the 90s when he could get a blockbuster budget for a 3+ JFK assassination theory, but he’s at least table to continue to make movies about socio-political issues as they are happen. He’s just not quite as sharp or pointed as he once was. I suppose that’s what aging does. Stone’s last two films were the George Bush bio W. (made during the dying days of the presidency) and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (made in immediate response to the recession). His latest project Savages is a drug war thriller set in the headline-grabbing worlds of decapitation-happy Mexican drug cartels and the multimillion dollar legal Californian marijuana grow-ops. This isn’t one of his films filled with commentary though (probably because no one “got” his confused take on the current economic climate in Wall Street 2), this flick is just a straight up action/thriller and also one of Stone’s most purely enjoyable efforts since the 90s. It still suffers from the director’s inability to grasp the concept of subtlety (when violent, he’s vicious. When corny, he’d make Spielberg do an eye roll), but despite the many flaws Savages is still a fun damn watch, if a somewhat slight project for the filmmaker.
Savages’ biggest problem is that the story told from the perspective of its weakest character. Blake Lively stars as O (short for Ophelia and yep the Shakespearean references are laid on thick, Stone-stylze) , a blonde beach beauty in a three-way hedonistic relationship with two legal weed farmers/somewhat legal drug dealers. One is hippy botany/business major Ben (Aaron Johnson), who believes in loving the planet and giving his profits to charity. The other is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an Iraq war veteran who handles the muscle and stern business side of things when needed. Together they form O’s perfect man. “Ben is the earth” she says while also claiming that Chon has “wargasms” while she has orgasms during one of her gag-inducing and faux-profound voiceovers that Stone probably wrote indulging in the trio’s drug of choice. The O/Ben/Chon trio are a boring lot and had the film been entirely about them, it would be a disaster. Thankfully drugs and violence tend to go together and the group they get tossed into the middle of a whole lotta fightin’ and killin’.
One morning a video is emailed to hedonistic druggies from a pretty serious Mexican cartel featuring a collection of severed heads and a not-so-gentle suggestion that they make a deal together. The potheads would prefer to sell the business and skip town, but the Cartel wants to study their business for three years and copy it. The stoners don’t agree and led by Selma Hayek’s Elena, the cartel strikes back. She has her California-based ass kicker Benicio Del Toro (who hilarious hides his hits by driving with Mexican sidekicks dressed as a landscaping company who use loud gardening equipment to conceal Del Toro’s gun shots) to kidnap O to force the deal. Chon doesn’t take to kindly to that negotiation tactic and calls up some old army buddies willing to help cause a ruckus. Chon and Ben then bribe an FBI contact (John Travolta) for just enough information to hit Elena at home and things get a bit bloody from there.
Stone is clearly far more interested in his bad guys, phoning in the scenes with dead-eyed boring Lively/Kitsch/Johnson combo so that he can focus on the good stuff with Travola, Hayek, and Del Toro. Those three actors have been around long enough to develop a knowing sense of humor about this brand of ludicrous pulp and give the movie the playful tone it needs (had the same been true of the young folks, this movie could have been real blast. But, alas…). Del Toro is Stone’s MVP and whenever the Oscar winning character actor is mugging in his ludicrous mullet wig, you’ll wish the whole movie was about him. Hayek and Travolta try to play on Del Toro’s level, but aren’t as talented so they pitch things a little too over the top at times. The good news for them is that this is an Oliver Stone picture, so no one could possibly go father over-the-top than the filmmaker himself. This is a man who openly plans the visuals for his movies on drugs and it shows. The film is mercifully not as nauseatingly stylized as Natural Born Killers, but Stone still trots out plenty of show off visual tricks and (unbelievably) two endings with his film rewinding to change the capper from a romantic shoot out to an ironic drug bust. It’s such a bold, weird, and unexpected move that you can’t help but admire. I’m still not sure if the double ending works, but it was definitely far more entertaining than seeing either of those endings play out on their own.
Even though there isn’t a single superhero or giant robot in sight, it makes sense that Savages received a summer release given that it’s the most streamlined piece of action/entertainment Stone has attempted in years. The movie feels like an old timey 80s or 90s action flick that used to dominate the summer box office (although we can assume that the studio picked the summer release under the assumption that Kitsch would be a star right now after John Carter and Battleship…whoopsi!). The cartel and profession grow up settings have some current cache resonance that Stone probably would have been able to explore more thoroughly a few decades ago. However, times have changed so once the worlds are established, Stone has to push those issues aside and focus on a twisty thriller with explosive interludes. Savages not a film that will win the director more Oscars or something that will even be remembered as one of his finest outings. Yep, judged purely on the level of entertainment value, it is a rip-roaring romp for viewers to old to commit to the adventures of a teen in tights. There are certainly many more interesting stories that could have been told about California weed trade and Mexico’s vicious drug cartels and hopefully we’ll get to see one soon. This time, we didn’t get that. We got a star-packed rat-a-tat thriller and at least on that superficial level Stone had some fun. Here’s hoping it’s successful enough for him to get a riskier project produced next time.
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Benicio Del Toro's delightfully over the top villain and to a lesser extent the bad guy roles played by John Travolta and Selma Hayek. Plus Oliver Stone delivers some great action and a few of his classic wtf directorial choices.
The three lead stoners played by Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, are drab black holes of personality who aren't easy to identify with or enjoy. Plus Oliver Stone delivers a few wtf moments and cornball lines of dialogue that are Razzie worthy.