Savages – Review


All’s fair in love and drug war

As Oliver Stone continues to slip further away from what made him into a strong filmmaker, the release of Savages sees him come full circle. Well, sort of. His big Hollywood break came when he penned the screenplay for Midnight Express, a drama dealing with the effects of being caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey. Thirty-four years later he returns to drugs, this time in the manufacture and distribution of primo weed in Laguna Beach, California. Different scenarios with a different tonality, his latest is a return to his gonzo days when he made films like Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. Both of those releases looked to signal Stone’s fall from cinematic grace after delivering such classics as Platoon, Wall Street, and JFK. While I may mount a defense against NBK naysayers, I can’t say the same for U-Turn or most of his output in the late ‘90s through the 2000s. Granted, Any Given Sunday is better than it has any right to be – largely because Al Pacino has another one of his signature moments (read: speeches) – but then you have Alexander, and Oliver Stone seemed to sleepwalk his way through the valiant but schmaltzy World Trade Center and the what-was-I-thinking Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.

And yet here is Stone making the crime thriller Savages. Based on the novel by Don Winslow, the story follows Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson), a pair of marijuana entrepreneurs that have cultivated some of the best weed in the western hemisphere. My mistake, the pair is actually a threesome with the addition of Ophelia (Blake Lively), O for short, the shared lover of the two best friends. Each member of this Ménage à trois has a distinct personality that sets each one apart, but also completes the group as a whole. O is their “lotus flower,” a flower child of a hippie mom who is referred to but never seen (supposedly the scenes with Uma Thurman as her mom had to be excised due to the film running long). Ben is the brains of the operation, having double majored in Botany and Marketing at UC Berkley. He’s also a practicing Buddhist pacifist. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who did tours in “I-Rock-and-Roll” (Iraq) and Stanland (Afghanistan), the latter of which saw him smuggle home cannabis seeds.

Giving White Widow seeds to Ben was like giving Michelangelo some paintbrushes and a blank ceiling and saying –

Go for it, dude. (From the novel Savages)

Chon as a practicing “Baddist” ensures that any complications with payment or delivery would be handled with swift action. That is until the Baja Cartel comes to them with a business proposition. It’s a proposition that would give the three of them a nice cache of cash after a three-year period, but the offer comes as Ben and Chon look to get out of the hydro business. Finally agreeing to do business with the cartel, its leader, feeling insulted at the initial turned-down offer, orders the head enforcer to kidnap O as means to exploit the pair’s weakness. Sadly, they underestimate Chon’s “baditude.”

O serves as the narrator to this story but acknowledges in the beginning that just because she’s telling the story doesn’t mean she’ll make it to the end. Foreshadowing, perhaps? This and the kidnapping don’t bode well for Ben and Chon’s lotus flower. She also speaks in words that could have only come from Winslow’s novel. When describing each drug dealer’s bedroom etiquette in voiceover, she freely admits that Ben orgasms while Chon “wargasms” when he ravishes her body.

Every now and then I’ll watch a film based on a book that I was fortunate enough to read prior to seeing the big-screen adaptation. Such is the case with Savages. Rather than turn this into a comparison critique, which is a disservice to both the novel and adaptation, since the film should stand on its own merits, I will say that Oliver Stone got a lot of stuff right. He also got some stuff wrong, due in large part to the difficulty of condensing Winslow’s stream of consciousness prose into something linear.

Stone’s interpretation of the material, which he co-wrote with author Winslow and Shane Salerno, is pretty straightforward even with multiple parties involved and a number of characters being introduced in a short timeframe. And while Savages aims to be an adult crime saga in vein of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (also written by Stone), it is neither a compelling epic nor worthy of such comparison. If anything, the film is the writer/director’s return to form to his wild and crazy days, but it’s a mild craze. While he does stray from the traditional when it comes to shot composition it’s nowhere close to the intensity of Natural Born Killers. Leave it to cinematographer Daniel Mindel, who previously lensed John Carter and Star Trek, to get the most out of every shot, be it the gold coast or the low-key hazy afterglow saturation as our protagonists get high.

The cast assembled is as impressive as it is odd. But the mix of veteran stars and the young trio works in spite of itself. Taylor Kitsch, this year’s poster boy for box office calamity (John Carter, Battleship), shows that he’s more at ease in an ensemble feature where the he doesn’t have to handle the brunt of the responsibility. Aaron Johnson shows some versatility with his Rastafarian hair and Buddhist principles – a big departure from wearing a green-and-yellow wet suit and trying to kick-ass. Blake Lively as the film’s anchor will either be a deterrent for some or accepted. Her O is California Girl material for sure with no defined aspirations or goals, much like the unseen-but-talked-about mother who bore her.

In terms of veteran talent, Salma Hayek shows her ruthlessness as Elena, the head of the cartel, a position she inherited with the death of her husband and two sons. Demián Bichir cashes in his Oscar nomination from A Better Life to play her lawyer. The role doesn’t require much effort (just quality suits). The two veteran standouts are John Travolta as a DEA agent and Benicio Del Toro as Lado, Elena’s #1 henchman. Travolta as the punchy agent with a receding hairline allows him to freestyle and go against the archetype. Del Toro’s character is pretty unhinged, and this allows him to go that much further when called to take care of a problem. When both Travolta and Del Toro share a moment together be aware of how much scenery is being chewed. It’s a fun little scene with some crackling dialogue. If only the entire film was as good as this tête-à-tête.

There’s a moment in Savages where O tells her lovers that they are like the movie with Paul Newman and Robert Redford – back when he was really hot. The movie she means is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not The Sting. It’s a good comparison. Ben is clearly Butch Cassidy and Chon is the Sundance Kid. But those who have seen the George Roy Hill western classic know how it ends. In a surprising move, Stone makes a decision that will either leave you upset or pleased.

Savages is one of those movies where the individual parts are greater than its sum. It’s a pretty shallow love triangle/payback story with a cheap reward. At the very least, Oliver Stone should be commended for trying to make Don Winslow’s novel – which reads like Cormac McCarthy on ADD – work as a feature film. But this is clearly a case where it’s better on the page and not on screen.

Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Shane Salerno and Don Winslow & Oliver Stone; based on the novel by Don Winslow
Notable Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch

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