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Monday, July 9, 2012

‘Savages’ Is a B-Movie With Only So Much Bite

Savages:  3 out of 5
Elena:  Let me remind you that I wouldn’t have a problem cutting both of their throats.
In theory, I should have been fairly excited about a gritty, R-rated thriller from director Oliver Stone.  After Stone’s last set of films, which includes Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W., and World Trade Center, Savages seems like the kind of film that would bring him back to the edgy kind of filmmaking once utilized by the man who made Natural Born Killers and scripted Scarface.  It certainly looks like an Oliver Stone film, complete with brutal violence, the use and repetition of certain types of music juxtaposed with symbolic cutaways, and a cranked up sense of direction.  Unfortunately, the film falters by having certain key characters not really register as well as they should, ending quite poorly, and not having much of a sense of purpose, which seems key in all of Stone’s films.  Still, a few of the actors and a number of other elements in the film worked well enough for me to find a decent B-movie here.


Savages revolves around best friends Cheech Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch); two top pot growers, who provide some of the best in the business.  Ben is a Berkley graduate with degrees in Business and Botany.  Chon is a former Navy SEAL.  The two run a successful organization together, based in Laguna Beach, CA, and share the love of their girlfriend O (Blake Lively) in a three-way relationship.  With the help of a corrupt DEA Agent, Dennis (John Travolta), the threesome seems to be living a very good life together.  

Things become complicated when Ben and Chon are approached by Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), head of the Baja Cartel, and given the offer to go into business with her.  Ben and Chon refuse, which leads to Elena sending her imposing henchman Lado (Benicio del Toro) to kidnap O, forcing the guys to be a part of her empire.  Ben and Chon do not take this lightly, which leads to them choosing to fight, with various tactics in mind, in order to get their girl back.


Right away, the one thing that really bugged me throughout this film was Blake Lively and her narration.  I am sure that she has her fans and Lively does manage to capture the sort of stereotypical vacant, SoCal, beach blonde, girl thing, but I still did not really like this person.  Given that she is the biggest motivation for these boys to proceed with the things they do, I would have liked to see someone that I thought met the status of the supposed ‘Helen of Troy’-like figure that O was being seen as.  The irritating narration by her only made things worse.  I also was not a big fan of Aaron Johnson in this film, which is a shame, because I do think he was good in both Kick Ass and Nowhere Boy and I think he has a good future ahead of him.  Unfortunately, while his character was supposed to be the more reserved and peaceful of the two, most of the time he just came off as whiny and I didn’t really buy into some of the other actions he took.

The rest of the cast did work quite well for me.  Taylor Kitsch does not exactly stand up to the level of the others, but I did enjoy him as a quiet tough guy.  The real joy comes from seeing Benicio del Toro, who manages to provide the film with both the most comedic performance and the scariest.  Complete with a mullet/pompadour and a knack for looking amused on occasion, despite taking ferocious actions throughout the film, this is a frightening performance that represents what this film needed more of.  John Travolta is doing some of the best work he has done in a while as well.  He adds another performance that brings humor to the story, while also advancing the plot.  The key is that scenes with Travolta are performed well enough that I don’t care about how he is mainly delivering exposition.  Lastly, Salma Hayek was a lot better than I expected, easily pulling off the part of the fiery ice queen of the cartel.  Her presence was intimidating and effective.


The story is based on a book of the same name by Don Winslow.  I am not familiar with this book and it is not my place to judge the film based on various things I have heard about it, but I will say that it feels like there was probably more there, which is usually the case.  However, it also feels strange that Savages did not have much more to it, beyond being a straight-forward film about the lives of varying degrees of criminal activity.  Given that Oliver Stone had a hand in crafting the screenplay and given his penchant for making movies that are generally about something, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Savages does not have any sort of satirical edge to it.  With the film being about young guys from Orange County dealing the best pot in the world and how they need to save their beautiful blonde girlfriend, who was kidnapped, while shopping at a mall, there seemed to be plenty of fodder to work with.  At an overlong 130 minutes, the film, I guess, had plenty going on in its plotting, despite ending up giving nothing to really reflect on once it ended.

Two more points that may counterbalance each other.  Stone’s directorial style in this film is aggressive, but not overly done.  It fits in a similar realm of someone like Tony Scott and films like Man on Fire and Domino, but not quite as excessive.  The general look, which was communicated well enough in the advertisements, provided a lot of reason for me to see the film in the first place.  It seemed like Stone was having fun making a new movie that felt sort of flashy and colorful, despite the grittiness and brutality on display (and this movie is very R-rated).  However, the way Stone approaches his conclusion, which really allows him to indulge in some very specific choices, really brought things down for me. 


I am still going with a recommendation overall.  I liked the older actors enough, particularly del Toro, that the film did manage to satisfy me overall.  Also, despite not caring much for Lively narrating everything, I did appreciate the film as a fairly straight-forward thriller and the fact that this really seemed like a film that Oliver Stone apparently just wanted to have fun making.  It may not have any sort of subtext to go along with it, but an uncomplicated, stylishly-directed film from Stone did enough to keep me entertained.  Savages is certainly violent and could have used a little less seriousness to make it more enjoyable, but it also had enough trashy elements that made me want to not take it too seriously.  As a result, it is a bit hollow, but has some good stuff in it.
Dennis:  You just stabbed a federal agent!

Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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