Savages Review

(2.5 STARS)

With Savages, Oliver Stone has veered off the path of politically-motivated dramas and moved in the direction of a simpler, and sexier, crime thriller. This adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel isn’t as narratively dense as something like JFK, but it ends up getting bogged down in unnecessary exposition, which ultimately takes away from what could have been a fascinating exploration of a very atypical love triangle. Elements of this film are exceptional, and Stone captures it all with great visual flare, but Savages just doesn’t click the way it should. And by the time it reaches its thoroughly dissatisfying conclusion, you’ll be scratching your head, wondering where exactly Stone and company went wrong.

Ophelia (Blake Lively) is our narrator, but she insists in the film’s opening minutes on being called O, as she can’t understand why her aloof mother wanted to name her after Shakespeare’s “bipolar basket case.” A resident of one Laguna Beach’s swankest pads, O loves equally the two men with whom she shares a home. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best friends and partners in one of the West Coast’s most lucrative marijuana businesses. The former is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who handles the messier (i.e. bloodier) aspects of their trade. The latter, meanwhile, is the brains and heart behind the operation. Ben doesn’t believe any business (not even an illegal one like this) needs to resort to underhandedness and violence to turn a profit.

Things are ticking along swimmingly until a corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), informs Ben and Chon that one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels wants to “go into business” with the two youngsters. The deal offered by the cartel’s leader, Elena (Salma Hayek), and her two stooges, lawyer Alex (Demian Bechir) and professional killer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), is laughable, so Ben and Chon respectfully decline. But these individuals don’t deal with disappointment well. They kidnap O and change the terms of the original proposal: Do what we say and, in a year, you’ll get the girl back.

For 30 minutes, Savages has next-to-nothing interesting to say. O is one of the year’s blandest protagonists, and it’s only when she finds herself in peril that you’ll find yourself involved in this film. Once Elena and her crew pit themselves squarely against this trio, Savages becomes a twisty bit of fun. That Chon and Ben are willing to do anything to save their girl isn’t surprising, but some of the things they’re actually forced to do are. And Stone gives their predicament plenty of time to marinate in our heads. Is it OK to kill a monster if it means saving the lives of others? What if the murder is based on false pretenses? These are questions Chon and Ben (especially the latter) must ruminate on while they figure out a way to do what seems impossible.

Elena, Lado, and Dennis are three more terrific elements in Savages middle third. Women typically don’t get roles as juicy as Elena in films like this, but Salma Hayek takes the baton and runs with it. She has a strange, daughter-like relationship with her captor, and though it’s hard to sympathize with someone who oversees such evil, she’s more than a fire-breathing bitch a la Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman. Benicio Del Toro has nothing remotely resembling a sympathetic side, but watching him threaten and kill with delight in his eyes is both unsettling and quite entertaining. Then, there’s Travolta as Dennis, a slimy slug of a man who has no allegiance to any of these people but is so damn good at convincing them he’s truly on his side.

If these great supporting performances were serving equally great or better leads, the film would be on much firmer ground. But not one among the trio of Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and Blake Lively turns out something worthy of what’s going on around them. Kitsch, who’s in the running for worst single year in the history of one actor after John Carter and Battleship, grunts and growls as well as anyone, but he’s robotic when it comes to any other emotion. Johnson is OK—easily the best of this trio—but, in spite of the relative bounty of material he’s give to work with, we never get much more than a superficial idea of who this guy really is.

Lively is a whole other story. Her performance in this film is worse than inadequate—it’s just plain bad. Underneath O’s strung-out attitude and barely-clothed look is Gossip Girl‘s Blake Lively. It doesn’t help that we spend more time with her than anyone else, thanks to the film’s awful narration, but her complete and utter inability to inhabit her character drags down the film more than any other single performance has since maybe Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. It’s surprising, too, because Stone did such a great job coaxing deep performances out of most of the cast of 2007’s W. Here, both he and some of his actors are clearly off their respective games.

At least Stone has maintained his eye for style. Though comparing this film to Natural Born Killers would be a little foolish, Savages looks like it could have come from the same director as that 1994 controversy magnet. The sun-soaked cinematography gives this world a great deal more beauty than perhaps it deserves (considering what goes on in it), while a few editing choices give the plot more complexity than it would have if told in a purely chronological fashion. Of course, the freedom to be creative with time sometimes has its costs. In Savages, the cost is a satisfying conclusion to this story. Stone gets way too cute in the final 20 minutes, and you’ll leave the film with a pretty sour taste in your mouth, as a result.

It’s always great to see Stone’s name attached to a juicy-looking project like this, but for the second time in a row, he falls short of what we’ve come to expect from the great director. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was an absolute mess. This film isn’t nearly as bad—in fact, it contains a few flashes of brilliance—but, on the whole, it leaves quite a bit to be desired.

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