Directed by: Oliver Stone
Cast: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Demian Bechir
Running Time: 2 hrs 20 mins
Release Date: July 6, 2012
PLOT: Two Cali weed entrepreneurs (Johnson, Kitsch) go to violent extremes to get their girlfriend (Lively) after she is kidnapped by a sadistic Mexican cartel (led by Hayak) that wants their business.
WHO’S IT FOR?: Full-fledged fun with Savages isn’t guaranteed for anyone, unless you think Oliver Stone’s trippy nature can do no wrong. If checking out Savages, it certainly helps if you can cheer on stoners or angry ex-jocks. That being said, this movie is bound to play well in college towns (especially Portland, Oregon, and Amherst, Massachusetts), where this will come off like an unfunny version of Pineapple Express.
EXPECTATIONS: This certainly seemed like a different type of summer movie, especially coming out in the same week as The Amazing Spider-Man. Nonetheless, such contrast was compelling, along with the allure of “auteur” fare.
Blake Lively as O: With this movie taking place in California’s Laguna Beach, one can’t help but imagine Lively is meant to be an epilogue to one of the town’s super privileged citizens celebritized on MTV’s title reality show. In an attention-demanding fashion similar to her performance in The Town, Lively doesn’t hesitate to get grimy with the role that has her makin’ whoopee with two bros, becoming a pizza-eating slave prisoner, and doing a whole lot of drugs. This tragic figure is given some sympathy by Lively’s performance, whether the movie really takes her (and her voiceover) all that serious or not.
Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as Ben and Chon: These money makin’ dro bros compliment each other like the great cliche duos – war and peace, love and hate, yin and yang, Cheech and Chong, etc. Their differing personalities provide a little uniqueness to the general duo construct, (Chon is an ex-soldier with blood on his hands, Ben is a smart botanist who wants to help the world), but even O sees them as the same person. The parallels between the two become less interesting when they align about the viciousness that is required in such high times, even when Chon lazily tries to feed back some Buddha to a now peace-less Ben. Rising stars Kitsch and Johnson play their extreme characters with some believability, but aren’t given any lightening fun. For the record, this is indeed Kitsch’s most successful role in recent months, over blandish stumbles with Battleship and John Carter.
Benicio Del Toro as Lado: No one has more fun with Savages than Del Toro, who won an Oscar for another drug movie, Traffic, and now has much grinning joy here playing Snidely Whiplash’s sadistic Mexican descendant. He comes into a scene (with his gimmicky landscaping crew) with a grotesqueness that moviegoers enjoy squealing at, offering this story a memorable character whose relevance to any type of theme can only be found in philosophy. Is he an archangel? Pure evil? Or just a supply of violence for audiences who are expecting this type of thing?
John Travolta as DEA Agent Dennis: Travolta’s working in the same vein of the wacko fun he had with his failed part in From Paris With Love, but this time it actually kind of works. He only speaks in chirps as a slimy “good guy,” but is colored with some goofy dialogue and a whole bunch of attitude. Though it doesn’t give Travolta a re-revival, it never comes off as pathetic or showy. If anything, it’s a very good fit for this movie.
Rest of Cast: Demian Bechir, fresh off his unexpected Oscar nomination for last year’s A Better Life, plays a serious villain so removed from Stone’s cartoonish reality that it’s like the director withheld a memo everyone else seemed to get. The concept of “drug lord” gets a different spin with Hayek, who spends much of the movie looking glamorous while running a cartel over a strong internet connection. Her own drama later in the film with her daughter is simply bizarre, with no immediate reason except for an ironic plot device.
TALKING: A great share of Savages is spent with characters playing mind games with one another, trying to manipulate the other, etc. These sometimes hammy word duels are sprinkled with bits of generally crazy humor, with a snide political crimp. For example, DEA agent Dennis equates Hayek’s intimidating cartel to Wal-Mart, and advises the small business stoners, “Don’t f**k with Wal-Mart.” This type of line only fits in weirdness with Lively’s self-pitying voiceover, which brings into large question how much of this movie is meant to be taken seriously.
SIGHTS: The camera of Savages is disorienting, whether it chooses to use straightforward or aggressive set of angles. This unpredictable nature of such cinematography does keep curious onlookers waiting for a great visual to happen, but such reveals itself to ultimately have little poetic purpose. While the characters might be psychotically goofy, the violence they bring onto each other is truly gruesome. Savages does deliver on its limited amount of action, as featured lovingly in the movie’s trailer.
SOUNDS: In a way of style that is somewhat effective but nothing new, Savages lets an orchestral piece (by Brahms) steer the tone of a tense moment. Throughout the movie, heavy computerized synth music is added to give the “thrills” of Savages some grit. The Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun” is covered by Yuna over the closing credits, which puts the “meh” in “meditative.” In such a film, the laid back cover of “Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads performed by Bruce Lash might be better fitting to the goofy dark nature of Savages.
BEST SCENE: Though it isn’t the smartest idea (we’ve got guns and guys, we can fight too!) the shoot-out is pretty exhilarating, especially with the boost of solid editing and big explosions.
ENDING: In its winking ways, Savages ties itself up with a hunky dory ending, even though it unnecessarily rips from the Funny Games playbook in the process.
QUESTIONS: How much has director Oliver Stone added his own interests to the story originally by Don Winslow? Is it a coincidence that Chon’s name is one letter away from being “Chong”? As someone else pointed out, is Lado’s placement at a baseball game at the end of the movie a reference to his character in Traffic?
REWATCHABILITY: Maybe I could groove to Savages more in a second viewing … but with that running time, probably not.
Oliver Stone has become your probably crazy uncle who definitely smokes pot (not mine, because I don’t have one, but you do). He’s the kind that rambles on and on whenever you lend him your ears, but he rarely rewards such attention with a fully articulated fine point. “Blah! Money, you’ve done it again!” (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). “Dammit, George!” (W.). “South America, grr! So much better than here!” (His bungled 2009 doc, South of the Border).
Uncle Oliver still doesn’t have a concise argument with his newest film, Savages, a drug-filled madhouse of unusual characters, most of whom have psychotic impulses that only rival those of cartoons. From what one can try to divulge from this winding tale of people trying to manipulate one another, this isn’t the war on drugs, but the war in drugs, told with the perspective of a clash between small and big businesses who hold meetings over Skype. This movie is Uncle Oliver’s equivalent of, “The damn DEA! Emoticons! Small businesses! Big businesses! Man, am I high!”
To be fair, the story does make an effort to be neater than any stoner’s diatribe. Despite working with an epic’s amount of characters and locations, the general going-ons of Savages aren’t lost in the extensive storyline, which will feel reaaally long if unaware of this film’s actually running time. Whether you sympathize with these stoners in their cause or not, there is a curiosity about where this dark film is going next. It certainly does help one’s attention with Savages that its action pops, and the subsequently blood spurts, if not erupts during its darker scenes.
At the expense of not letting audiences strap themselves in for a twirling teacup-like experience, Stone has his weed and he smokes it too. More prone to chaos and more odd than Del Toro’s character, the tone of Savages is its weirdest aspect. With its base intent hard to pinpoint (especially because Stone is trying to cover so many topics at once), it becomes a question of “What is meant to be sarcastic, and what does Stone really mean?” For example, what are we supposed to do with Lively’s voiceover line, “I have orgasms … he has war-gasms” ? At least Funny Games, an audience-indicting film that he yoinks from in the third act, is structured with by a clear thesis. Here, Stone seems to be weird and sarcastic simply for weird sarcasm’s sake, with his character flourishes and sporadic moments of visual style not looking pretentious, but instead, purposeless.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10