(by Dustin Putman
If one were to be unfamiliar with Oliver Stone's directorial career as a whole and concentrate only on the last ten years, he would have no finite identity and, if anything, might even be labeled something of a hack. 2004's campy hatchet job "Alexander," 2006's painfully mawkish "World Trade Center," 2008's forgettable biopic "W.," and 2010's distaff sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" read like an ongoing exercise in spineless ambition. Watch any of these films and the only thing they will lead a viewer to wonder is what happened to the radicalized, trailblazing filmmaker responsible for modern classics such as 1986's "Platoon," 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July," 1991's "JFK," and 1994's "Natural Born Killers." Stone's latest picture, a seedy, drug-fueled thriller called "Savages," is a step in the right direction insomuch that it does have the mood and feel of the auteur's most iconic work (its closest cousin would probably be 1997's underappreciated "U-Turn"). Adapted from the much-acclaimed 2010 novel by Don Winslow, who co-writes the screenplay with Shane Salerno (2007's "Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem") and Stone himself, the film must streamline character development and subplots to fit a workable running time - this is expected and understandable - but what's left lacks the vicious bite this sordid tale of blackmail, revenge and murder deserves. Article continues below
The other element missed is a reason to care about any of the slimy, entitled monstrosities on view. Resident narrator and protagonist O (Blake Lively), a wealthy, pot-smoking 21st-century flower child happily sleeping with two men when she isn't shopping, is as sympathetic as any of these people get, and even she is someone most people would probably not care to know in their real life. Speaking in embarrassing voiceovers with a particular penchant for bad puns and worse metaphors, O describes her sex life with war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) like this: "He's always trying to fuck the war out of himself. I have orgasms. He has wargasms." If her bedroom theatrics with Chon are described as being like "cold metal," her carnal relations with more sensitive second boyfriend Ben (Aaron Johnson) are akin to "warm wood." The three of them live in a palatial home along Laguna Beach, the two guys best friends and entrepreneurs specializing in growing some of the best weed the world has seen. When a ruthless Mexican drug cartel headed by the cutthroat Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) catches wind of their operation, she sends lethal enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O, using her life as collateral in order to control Chon and Ben and overtake their lucrative business.
"Savages" wastes no time introducing Ophelia - O, for short - and her wayward lifestyle alongside Chon and Ben. Chon bangs her in a chaise longue, then she promptly gets high. She mounts Ben in a bathtub soon after, the two of them taking turns dipping their heads underwater while thrusting away. All three are fine with the polygamous situation. "I know what you're thinking: slut," O narrates. Well, yes, among plenty of other things. It is not always imperative that movies feature lovable characters, but there should be a semblance of charm, a glimmer of a detectable worthwhile quality, or at least some substantial dimension to the person(s) the film is following. Without this, the experience becomes either an indifferent or insufferable one. Why bother to care about what happens next if there is no reason to? As heroines go, O isn't a hateful gal, but she is depicted as a poor little rich girl, one who has no worthwhile aspirations and a skewed world view that is wishy-washy verging on ignorant. She claims that she loves Chon and Ben equally because, together, they are like the perfect man. O can ramble on all she wants, but cinema is a visual art form and it's not enough to be told without being legitimately shown, too. As written and portrayed here, Chon and Ben might be raking in the big bucks with their pot-growing, but they lack much personality or complexity. They're shallow ciphers with cut bodies. When O is snatched up and threatened with torture and worse if Chon and Ben don't do Elena's bidding, the story's intrigue heightens, but not one's interest. Why be bothered about these snotty twenty-somethings at all?
With 2010's "The Town" and now "Savages," Blake Lively has been breaking out, showing layers and a diversity of roles that could never have been guessed when she was first starting out in 2005's "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." She's all too convincing as O, but let down by a script that gives her less to do the further the film presses forward. As Chon and Ben, Taylor Kitsch (2012's "Battleship") and Aaron Johnson (2010's "Kick Ass") push themselves toward emulating an intensity that flairs their noses, but doesn't lend shape to their undernourished characters. Salma Hayek (2010's "Grown-Ups") is a different story as youth-obsessed cartel lord Elena, unleashing an animalistic viciousness hidden just behind her calm and collected exterior. Witnessing Hayek take such full control over her against-type turn—the best she's had in years—is delicious. As her psychotic right-hand man Lado, Benicio Del Toro (2010's "The Wolfman") is nearly as riveting, reminding of his character from 2000's "Traffic" had he gone bat-shit crazy. Playing a shady DEA agent in cahoots with Chon and Ben, John Travolta (2010's "From Paris with Love") also shows up sans hairpiece, but doesn't get much to do since his true intentions are kept purposefully obscured.
"Savages" is emotionally cold, but gripping in its bursts of violence. Working far better as catharsis than drama, the hope was that director Oliver Stone would embrace that corrupt depravity as it slid into its third act, with Chon and Ben turning the tables on Elena and hitting her right where she lives. The outcome - both of them, since there are actually two endings in a way - strike as rushed and reserved when they ought to be over-the-top and macabre. By comparison, the previous hour leading up to the climax is problematically paced, drawn out and with deteriorating momentum as the audience anticipates the explosive confrontation to come. There is one - or, again, two - but they are altogether softer than, say, the cruelly ironic finale in "U-Turn." Ending with an admittedly lovely cover of The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" by Yuna is not what most will have in mind, but at least it's pretty. All of "Savages" is, in fact, the sun-dappled California coast beatifically shot by cinematographer Dan Mindel (2012's "John Carter"). What Stone has misplaced is an additional sucker punch and maybe a sign of virtue beyond the criminality. Instead, "Savages" manages but empty mayhem in between plenty of down time.