While ‘World Trade Center’ and ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ were commercial successes, Oliver Stone truly hasn’t made his presence felt in his films since 1999′s ‘Any Given Sunday.’ While I enjoyed the aforemntioned films on a certain level, neither made me feel the way I did when seeing AGS, or films like ‘Natural Born Killers,’ ‘Platoon,’ ‘Wall Street.’ I like Oliver Stone when he’s being violent, and loud, and excessive – whether it’s with drugs, or music, or money, or violence for the sake of violence. It says a lot to the tone of the film when you can watch a movie and feel the filmmaker’s touch. Wes Andersen, David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Tarantino, P.T. Anderson – all filmmakers that ooze a style that labels a film their own. Stone had that run in the 80′s/90′s where you could tell that from his movies, but lately that hasn’t been the case.
Watching the first trailer for ‘Savages,’ I immediately got that tickle in my tummy. You know, the one you feel when someone guessed which hand you were holding the item in behind your back. I’d been wanting to see a film like this for a long time. Admittedly, I’m a big fan of drug movies. Cartels, mobs, mafia – any kind of (un)organized crime – they all have my full attentions if the trailer/source material strikes my fancy. The Savages trailer did that and more.
Based on Don Winslow’s 2010 crime novel of the same name, ‘Savages’ follows two DIY pot dealers who get caught up with the Mexican Baja Cartel when their little business that could starts to overshadow the quality and notoriety of the Cartel’s product and profits. Also in the mix is the love toy of the two leads. Free love, corrupt DEA agents, a Cartel leader (Salma Hayek) with family issues, an antagonist (Benicio Del Toro) to make your skin crawl, and the best weed ever known to man; sounds like the perfect return to form for Stone, right? Well, yes … for the most part.
Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch take the lead as Ben and Chon, a perfect Yin and Yang, respectively. Ben’s the brains, the idea, the soul. Chon’s the muscle, the emotion, the justice. Blake Lively is the flesh that binds them. As O, Lively plays the peace, love and happiness for all - among the backdrop of a mounting war to which she’ll play the most pivotal of roles. Out story starts out smooth enough as O introduces us to all the major players and sets the story in motion. We learn of their meetings, Ben and Chon’s school days, Chon’s services as a Navy Seal, and all of the minor players that cross their paths, including John Travolta’s DEA Agent, Dennis. All is well in the beautiful Laguna locale, but the boys feel the pressure mounting and want out, clean and safe. They’d much prefer to give and go, but the Cartel doesn’t want them out entirely. They’d like to take over ops, but have the boys still on hand for the production and scientific aspects of the business. They’d rather not. And what better way to make them play, than to take their toy and dangle it in their faces. Baja Cartel takes O, Ben and Chon play along to get her back, Ben and Chon decide to play some angles to not only get the girl, but now to inflict some pain on the Cartel. A true David and Goliath, but this “David” has many, many resources to make this a fair fight.
Most of the casting is solid. Johnson, Hayek and Del Toro are the anchors. It’s hard to believe in watching Johnson as Ben that this was the kid from ‘Kick-Ass.’ But yes, it is! And he’s the star of this film.He’s the soul and vision of the film, and most changes character throughout. Having to step out of his comfort zone, we see Ben tainted with the real-life horrors of what can happen in a business that up to this point was easy sailing.
Hayek and Del Toro are great as the Cartel muscle and backbone. Double crossing, sleaze, mommy issues, and a landscaping crew you’ll hope to never see make these two a blast to watch together and even when separated throughout the film.
I don’t know what to say about Kitsch. I feel like the studios are trying to make a star out of this guy, and I love him myself. On the small screen, as Tim Riggins on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ he was stellar. Don’t know that that’s the case on the big screen. He’s had two flops this summer – ‘Battleship’ and ‘John Carter,’ the latter of which I liked – and here’s hoping to this film succeeding. If not, it may be his last shot at stardom beyond television. He’s got the looks, the persona and the skills to be a star, but his choice of films is questionable. ‘Savages’ gives him his best chance at success though. As Chon, he settles more in to his role and seems more comfortable playing on edge.
Travolta is in 4 scenes at most, and while he’s there he’s solid, funny even at times, he’s one of the more underdeveloped characters. He has some pretty tense scenes, but some pretty funny ones as well. I’d have liked to seen his character given more screen time to develop his ties to Ben and Chon and the Cartel. Might have made for more coherence in our showdown in the end.
Lively was meh. Take it or leave it, she was there to set off the conflict. The sex scenes are sexy, but something about her just rubs me the wrong way. She tries really hard to play her character with an edge, especially in the more sultry moments, but I’m not buying it all.
All in all, ‘Savages’ is a welcome refresher, and return, to all that I love(d) about Oliver Stone’s earlier work. I’d almost begun to feel like it was a conscious effort on his part to suppress his more savage (pun fully intended) tendencies, but this is a nice taste of that juicy side. With the exception of a handful of mild issues pertaining to story line, some underdeveloped character, and a Scooby Doo ending, ‘Savages’ is a fun ride. Stone’s not rewriting the book on his career, but adding a nice chapter.