Oliver Stone has proven to be quite the schizophrenic filmmaker over the course of his career. When he’s on, he can make something powerful (BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), intriguing (JFK) or socially poignant (NATURAL BORN KILLERS). When he’s off, we get ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, ALEXANDER and W., movies that progressively crumble along the way as Stone places spectacle over story on the priority list. His new film SAVAGES falls somewhere in the middle, delivering a gritty drug-infused crime drama with the feel of TRUE ROMANCE, minus all the fun. In fact, when SAVAGES does push forward with some over the top characters on the periphery that breathe life into the film, its three leads – Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson – instantly snap it back from becoming the wild ride its almost intent on being, smothering it in seriousness and fracturing the film into what it feels like two entirely different entities. It’s too bad that the one based around the three people the film follows the most is the one you least want to spend time with, after getting a glimpse at Salma Hayek’s drug lord, Benicio Del Toro’s enforcer and the drug enforcement agent played by John Travolta, who hasn’t appeared to be having this much fun on-screen since John Woo’s FACE/OFF. Who wants watch a bizarre threesome of lovers pine over getting out of the drug business, when it’s those firmly entrenched in it that make the movie go? Not that Hayek, del Toro or Travolta glorify getting involved with drug cartels in any way, but when the alternative is three young actors who take the most roundabout ways to solving their problems directly to the point where you’re not even sure what their grand plan is as its happening… yeah, I’ll immediately sign up to hang out with the pushers.
Kitsch and Johnson play Ben and Chon, two childhood friends who’ve managed to grow, sell and distribute some of the best weed in the world through the California network they’ve established for themselves. But, in the drug world, they’re the equivalent of a mom and pop operation, and the Wal-mart equivalent in their industry, a drug cartel fronted by Elena Sanchez (Hayek) wants to take over their share of the market. Even in narcotics, there are such things as hostile takeovers. Ben and Chon aren’t interested in the offer though, choosing instead to get out of the business altogether rather than do what amounts to leasing their end of things for the next three years, cutting someone else in on their hard work. But you know those drug lords aren’t going to take no for an answer too kindly, and, in order to get Ben and Chon to play ball, their girlfriend O (Lively) – yes, both their girlfriends at the same time – is kidnapped, with Elena’s right hand man Lado (Del Toro) in the middle of the action. That puts Ben and Chon in the position of going on the attack, because no one is going to take their girl away from them and get away with it, not even those who are capable of lighting their enemies on fire or decapitating them. It’s a good thing Ben is a veteran of two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, because otherwise it’d make for one uneven fight.
If SAVAGES was as simple as a power struggle between the small time and the big players, a division of the drug world, it might have played a little bit better, devoting equal time to the “bad guys” of this equation, as if anyone should really be viewed heroically for selling weed. But there’s a tangled mess of subplots concerning other cartels and informants and money laundering that eat up way too much of SAVAGE’s running time that when you do finally get back to this Ben and Chon versus Elena scenario, your concentration is shot, having been bounced around by story threads that don’t really go anywhere and seemingly take forever. I’m serious… SAVAGES may clock in at a bit past two hours, but it feels like you’ve been stuck in the theatre for almost double by the time Ben and Chon decide to finally carry out the one most intelligent power play they have against Elena, which the audiences realizes not too long after our first introduction to Hayek’s character. That may mean SAVAGES would have been over in about 45 minutes, but, in retrospect, less could have certainly been more for Stone’s latest.
This does look and feel like your typical Oliver Stone flick, too. Between the random imagery, his love of color filters and some speed-up/slow-down techniques, Stone pulls every trick he knows from his playbook, but it never quite fits in with the story he’s trying to tell with SAVAGES. This should be a dirty movie about drugs and those who are moving them, as evidenced by one rather gory torture scene. So, if you’re going to tell a story about these bad people and the horrible things they do in order to make their living, over-stylizing the way you present it to us doesn’t really make a lot of sense. My eyes shouldn’t be distracted by the unnecessary color changes. They should be focused on that eyeball that’s popped out of that guy’s head, which feels as if it’s staring at me in every shot it’s shown.
Johnson, Kitsch and Lively just don’t make for a good core of actors for a film of this nature to be built upon, especially since it puts them in a position for veterans like Hayek, Del Toro, Travolta and Demian Bichir to act circles around them. One side of this film is committed to be entirely serious about the material while the other seems to have embraced some caricatures of their archetypes, making for a movie that feels split in what it’s trying to do. I’m all for Travolta, Del Toro and Hayek hamming it up here, because it elevates SAVAGES from dull to exciting in the moments they’re involved. In fact, such a disparity is on full display when you’ve got a lively (no pun intended) conversation between Travolta and Del Toro that is full of the juice the rest of the film is lacking.
Lively is the first big problem, as right from the start with her uninspired voiceover/monologue, her performance feels forced. On top of that, her position in the middle of these two best friends as the love of both their lives never really comes across properly. Look… if you want to set this love triangle up as one giant bisexual open relationship, go right ahead… establish it and really sell it, and I’ll get on-board. I could buy into three people living an alternative lifestyle as it is also engaging in an alternative love life amongst each other. However, Lively never comes across as so desirable that Ben and Chon can’t absolutely live without her. Even when they talk about splitting town at an early point in the film, she’s not smart enough to understand that means her, too. On top of that, Lively’s crystal clear non-nudity contract clause does her a disservice in SAVAGES, as perhaps getting a look at the goods she’s hiding beneath her long-flowing dresses might convince me that it’s her looks that are keeping these two friends simultaneously interested, when it’s not her smarts or her personality. They don’t even get to have her naked when they have sex, whether individually or together. Who wants to risk their lives for a woman with what amounts to insecure body images, at least in how it could be interpreted in the movie? I’m sorry, but if we have to fuck while you’re still fully dressed, including in the bathtub, I’m not taking on ruthless drug lords to get you back.
It’s easy to pile on Kitsch after JOHN CARTER and BATTLESHIP, but at least in his defense here, it’s not entirely his fault for the lifeless performance he gives in SAVAGES. It’s just the way the character is written. He’s the more business-like, no-nonsense side of the drug-dealing duo, and, as a result, Kitsch plays him as such. It’s an unexciting character that is difficult to get behind, because there’s nothing to identify with, nothing to root for… Kitsch comes across as a shell of a man, which is most likely what Stone was going for, when you take into account Chon’s service history, but it makes for a rather uninteresting character to watch, and one that really calls upon the actor playing it to do the bare minimum, much to his detriment. There’s a little more going on with Ben, as Aaron Johnson gets to play the brains of the operation to Kitsch’s brawn. He understands the complexities of their situation and hopes for simple answers, but there’s definitely a lot more thinking going on with Ben that Johnson is able to bring out in the film, even if there’s not a lot of room to show it. He’s the unwilling participant in the downward spiral their situation has developed into, drawing you to his outsider presence in a world to which he really doesn’t belong.
SAVAGES is an okay movie for quite some time, showing flashes of really good, such as a tense moment when Ben and Chon may or may not get pulled over by a state trooper while hauling a whole lot of narcotics, and enough bad, namely everything involving Lively, but then it gets truly awful rather quickly when it decides upon its resolution to the entire story. For a filmmaker who has made it a point to be controversial and bold throughout stretches of his career, the ending to SAVAGES is the most pussy move I’ve seen Oliver Stone pull ever. It’s such a cop-out that, even if you were sold on everything you’d seen leading up to it, the groans will audibly ring out of your body, as you feel absolutely cheated that you’ve wasted all your time with the film for it to end up like this. Horrible is even a bit of an understatement for where Stone takes it… bullshit is much more fitting. For all the goodwill SAVAGES earns with some good stuff mixed in with its more mediocre, it’s instantly pissed away by sending you back into the lobby having ending so weakly.
SAVAGES is far from garbage, but the bad definitely outweighs the good, which is a shame, because some of that good is really entertaining to watch. There’s an element of fun missing to its wild cowboy atmosphere, as SAVAGES feels remarkably restrained for a film dealing with this drug dealing subject matter. This isn’t one of Stone’s best, and certainly isn’t his worst, but that speaks volumes for what it ends up being – a rather safe film made by a usually bold man.
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