Ben is a peaceful and charitable Buddhist. His best friend Chon is a troubled ex-Navy SEAL and veteran. Together they run a highly lucrative and successful independent marijuana business, and also share the love of their mutual lady O (short for Ophelia). They have a rather decent (from one perspective) life together, but all of that changes when they run afoul of the brutal Baja Cartel, and its fiendishly cruel leader Elena and her head henchman Lado.
After O is kidnapped, Ben and Chon, with the aid of a shady DEA agent named Dennis, go on the offensive, and find themselves in the midst of a brutal war with an outcome that could be grim for all parties.
So this is ever controversial auteur Stone's commentary on the ever continuing war on drugs, and, while it does have political and social commentary/messages, it's actually one of his least preachy and heavy handed as far as this sort of thing goes. It's mostly a slick and brutal thriller, and, I actually kinda liked that. It's still wild, but it also seems as if Stone is finally maturing and trying to rein things in a bit.
This doesn't apply to all fronts however, as, like many of the director's works, this one is a bit of a mess. It's overlong, the narration is flat and lifeless, the film gets quite meandering at times, and I hate how Stone concludes things, a la Funny Games.
Also, the three leads, despite delivering in other movies, just don't work here, especially Lively. Kitsch and Johnson fare only slightly better. The real meat and the most interesting work comes courtesy of Hayek as Elena, Travolta as Dennis, and del Toro as Lado. These three do get a bit hammy at times, but when they need to shine, they don't disappoint, especially del Toro, who is a joy to watch as one of the better screen villains of 2012.
The film has Stone's usual flair as far as cinematography, music, and editing go, but it feels more reserved, which, I did actually like. It could have gone all out like Natural Born Killers did, but, given this film's issues, I think it would have only harmed it. It's definitely entertaining, but I don't know if I quite recommend it. Maybe only see this if you're a Stone diehard.
Stone has been on a downward slope for the last thirteen years. There were touches of the old give ‚~em hell provocateur: the unapologetic omnivorous sexuality in Alexander, the gut churning tension in the opening of World Trade Center, and the bruised vulnerability of Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps but those small flashes of the old Stone never amounted to a whole film that could rival his earlier work. Slowing down is inevitable and measuring the 66 year old against the 40 year old is inherently unfair but Savages is such a drop off quality even compared to the weak effort that was Money Never Sleeps its shocking.
The film starts off with promise but quickly collapses; sensuous shots of California‚(TM)s Laguna Beach that are ruined as soon star Blake Lively delivers some of the most insipid narration I‚(TM)ve ever heard. During this loathsome monologue Lively lays out the foundations of the plot, she‚(TM)s in a relationship with botanist Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and ex-SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) who distribute the most potent strain of weed ever conceived. The trio live in oddly heteronomic bliss until ruthless cartel leader (Selma Hayek) kidnaps Lively to force the two men into producing specifically for her organization. Unsurprisingly, the two herbalists decide to get their girlfriend back which involves enlisting a corrupt DEA agent (a lazy John Travolta) and crossing swords with Hayek‚(TM)s vicious henchmen (an underused Benicio del Toro).
If Tony Scott or Neveldine/Taylor ‚" who Stone liberally apes from here - directed this film, it might have been a lot of fun. The beach side decadence would have been enjoyable and the inevitable turn toward violence would have felt operatic instead of anticlimactic. And the racist (the savages of title are clearly identified as Mexicans) and sexist (Lively is a very pretty prop) would have been clear and not muddled with half-hearted gestures to sexual and racial equality like Hayek‚(TM)s unbelievably compassionate boss.
A bit of clarity would have gone a long way in this film. Like cutting a number of the subplots adapted from co-screenwriter Don Winslow‚(TM)s novel of the same name. For example, hardcore Mexican capo‚(TM)s don‚(TM)t need dysfunctional personal lives when their just there to be scary and sleazy DEA agent doesn‚(TM)t need a cancer stricken wife be sympathetic. And if you want to make your audience care about two rich hippies and one good looking psychopath, you probably shouldn‚(TM)t make the psychopath the most interesting character.
The firebrand Oliver Stone of the ‚~80s and ‚~90s would have made a powerful meditation on violence, sexuality and So-Cal criminal politics. He wouldn‚(TM)t have filled his violent saga needless soap opera crap and he would know better than to cast a has been like Travolta and a never gonna be like Lively. He would have gone full on with his wildly dissonant music cues and visual flourishes instead slipping them out whenever the tone accidentally got too coherent. A younger Stone might not have made a much better movie because he‚(TM)s always been uneven but he wouldn‚(TM)t have made a movie about a three-way relationship that with too totally straight guys and he would have made the villains palatable in spite of the reprehensible behavior. He would have made a movie with compromise and he would have been beautiful.
Great Movie! The story brings a lot of profound dialogs between good and bad characters. Benicio del Toro is shining as negative, Salma Hayek and John Travolta are average good. But Oliver Stone decided to put three less developed actors in main roles, and this made the movie magnificent! They blended into characters absololutely perfect, giving the film modern and feel of freshness, and three stars gave it strength and seriousness. Blake Lively successfully plays a role of coldest heart melter, and Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor- Johnson finally played really deep roles. Fabulous story of love and determination. Don't miss it!!
Entrepreneurs Ben, a peaceful and charitable marijuana producer, and friend Chon, a former Navy SEAL, run a lucrative, homegrown industry - raising some of the best weed ever developed. They also share a one-of-a-kind love with Ophelia. Life is idyllic in their Southern California town... until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in and demands that the trio partners with them. When the merciless head of the BC, Elena and her enforcer, Lado, underestimate the unbreakable bond of the three friends, Ben and Chon - with the reluctant assistance of a dirty DEA agent - wage a seemingly unwinnable war against the cartel. And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and maneuvers in a high stakes, savage battle of wills.
So what does Stone give us here? what can he offer that is refreshing and new? well not much as it happens. Its the same old story I'm afraid, been there, seen it, done it. Don't get me wrong, this film is well made in every aspect, acting is solid, visuals are eye catching and violence is nasty but the whole notion is just old.
This could of been made by either Scott brothers and utilized Denzel Washington easily, its that kind of flick. The visual style is a very common flavour in recent years but it does look swish as we get flashbacks that break up the plot continuity. Add to this the slick vicious sharp violence and the film does become more interesting (in a morbid way), not much violence but what there is is enough to satisfy.
The problem is the film is slooooooooow, oh so slow, it takes ages before anything fun happens and the plot gets moving. Until then we get constant narration from Lively telling us every little plot detail as if we're children. The other thing is most of the beginning plot is merely about drugs and how these hippy-like young adults sell/grow it...up until the kidnapping of course, but even then it trudges along like a hiker knee deep in snow.
The cast helps a lot of course, the main players here being the always excellent Del Toro and the always gorgeous Hayek. What does Del Toro do? guess...he can only be one thing in a drug cartel film right? yep...the sadistic enforcer. Hayek is the cartel boss and my god she looks good, dare I say even sexier than her impressive performance in 'From Dusk Till Dawn'? If you gotta be kidnapped then you can't go far wrong than being kidnapped by Hayek in this film or reality even!. Just a shame she doesn't really come across as a badass drug cartel kingpin, she's too nice to the hostage.
Other cast includes Travolta in a small role where he kinda does what he's done before in various action flicks, be a crooked smartass. The good guys are fine but nothing special, new action boy Taylor Kitsch finally seems to have landed with something semi decent. Blake Lively looks nice and gets screwed a lot, doesn't add much else.
A good film of sorts but terribly slow and sparse of action even though you get the impression there will be lots. Some good acting saves the day for sure but despite that and the nifty camera work Stone really misses a chance to muster up a cracking tense thriller. Kinda get the impression he's trying to copy the Scott brothers and maybe even have a go at Tarantino's throne but shoots wide of the mark...if only by a relatively small margin.
John Travolta, in a nice supporting role, plays a corrupt federal agent with his dirty hand in everything. What a cast.
One of the nice twists is that the three American pot growers live together in a menage-a-trois. Lively sleeps with both men, and fairly often they all sleep together. Not only did I find this sexy (the sex scenes are directed exceptionally well), I also found it interesting on a number of levels.
First, it helped the story. For the movie to work emotionally, there must be an unusual bond between the three characters. They can't just be friends. Both males need to be deeply connected to the woman. But they must also have an unusual bond with each other. Male bonding of course has a long history in the movies -- in fact, one could argue that that's what movies are really about. But I believe this is the first time in a big Hollywood production that the two straight male characters sleep together. The men never have direct sexual contact. But they are in bed together and make love next to each other. This does work in terms of giving their bond extra depth.
But it doesn't just serve the story well. I think Stone was drawn to this for some deeper reasons. The most advanced artists around the world all seem to be sensing that non-traditional relationships that tweak the definition of straight and gay are the way of the future. The human species is rapidly evolving. Humans are bonding with each other in new ways. Advanced people are less afraid to venture into new territory, even if it throws their identity into flux.
Straight male artists (guys who have led a primarily heterosexual life) have in the last 20 years been among the most adventurous in this space -- more so than gay men, interestingly enough. "Savages" represents to me Oliver Stone's first foray into this area. I find it quite exciting and liberating. His film helps push out the bounds of how mainstream culture can imagine human relationships. Not exactly straight, not exactly gay, not exactly bisexual. A future of human love that we have no words for yet.
I wonder if this adventurousness is a reason "Savages" hasn't been very well received. We may be in a moment right now of some retrenchment, where less advanced people are trying to reinforce traditional identities. With change happening so fast, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to have periods of slow-down, giving people, particularly the less courageous, the opportunity to catch their breath.
Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won't take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys' shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.
It's a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it's just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We've got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I've read reviews where critics cite del Toro as "hypnotic." I have no idea what they're talking about. He's just your average skuzzy bad guy you'd find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that's where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn't give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don't care about their problems and I especially don't care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn't worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.
Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010's The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there's Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He's done fine acting work before, but as Chon he's just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most "flavor" of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he's still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don't find any way to redeem them.
Actually, I found Salma Hayerk's character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena's husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She's assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, eve if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she's a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena's just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as "colorful" characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser mťnage a trois.
I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you're going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you'll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.
Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (and don't pretend a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type "Chon" as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow's novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has... "wargasms." Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we're subjected to O's protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had. She keeps saying, "Just because I'm telling this story, doesn't mean I'm alive at the end." Can you promise me that? Then there's the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending.... and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It's a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.
I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the "it was all a dream" blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you'd at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a "return to form," I weep for what that entails.
Nate's Grade: C