THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Oliver Stone has been making films with sociopolitical commentary for so long that it's something of a surprise to see him making a lighter film like Savages. Granted, a “light” Oliver Stone movie still has explicit sex, graphic violence, and a healthy exploration of (im)morality, but there's nothing about it that's likely to stir up any controversy. Then again, the sociopolitical stuff is usually what makes Stone's work memorable. When he tries to avoid it, you end up with U-Turn. With Savages, he is clearly trying to capture a little bit of the old Natural Born Killers vibe. Both are freewheeling tales of young people navigating a world they find cruel and unforgiving. The difference is that NBK had something to say about the pervasive and glamorizing media coverage of violence in our society, which gave it an undeniable impact. This one doesn't have any such grand point, and it therefore feels slick but empty.
Savages is the story of two young pot dealers. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a hippie do-gooder botanist who has figured out how to grow weed with astronomical THC levels. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a businessman who turned his buddy's specially-engineered marijuana into a moneymaking venture. Since he's a hardened vet who served in Afghanistan, Chon also serves as the “muscle” of the operation, on those rare occasions when muscle is needed. Both men share the love – and the bed – of Ophelia (Blake Lively). She is fine sharing them as well. Together, they lead a life filled with California sunshine, casual sex, and all the potent weed they can smoke. When Ben and Chon decide it's time to extricate themselves from the drug trade, they end up running afoul of a Mexican drug kingpin named Elena (Salma Hayek). In an attempt to coerce them into doing what she wants, Elena instructs her enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap Ophelia. The guys realize they will have to resort to extreme measures to get her back. John Travolta plays Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent who proves vital to their plan.
Savages is always interesting and never boring, but it's not very good either. To its credit, the film has a tight pace; there seems to be something happening every single second. The portrayal of the day-to-day logistics of the drug trade is interesting, such as the way Ben and Chon have to occasionally negotiate tentative business arrangements with people who have very different (i.e. bloodier) practices than they do. Stone's visual style effectively alternates between the glossy California existence the lead characters share and the grimy, gritty drug underworld into which they get sucked. Kitsch and Lively turn in strong performances, as does Johnson (Kick-Ass) as the peace-loving pothead who reluctantly comes to understand that he will have to resort to violence if he wants to save his love.
These are all good elements, but that's all they are: elements. Savages never finds a way to assemble them into something greater. The screenplay, which Stone co-wrote with Shane Salerno (Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem) and Don Winslow (on whose novel the film is based), is all over the map. There are so many characters and so many subplots to keep track of that the movie's rhythm fails to flow smoothly. I haven't yet mentioned the money-laundering accountant, the shady lawyer, Elena's daughter, or the other dealers/henchmen who populate the film. Oftentimes, Savages feels choppy and disjointed in its attempts to keep so many plates spinning. Other pictures, including some directed by Stone, have pulled off this sort of mosaic format. Accomplishing such a feat requires a tight narrative focus that this movie lacks. More time should have been spent developing the most compelling parts of the story, such as Ben's moral conflict over the use of violence, or the reasons behind Elena's thirst for power. Doing such things might have given it that needed focus.
Probably the worst sin committed by Savages is its ending. The plot builds to what feels like a natural conclusion, only to switch gears and give us another, less effective conclusion that is utterly bogus and impotent. You get sent out of the theater on a bum note.
Savages is definitely a lesser Oliver Stone movie. He may have wanted to “play” a little more than normal, and that's fine. He certainly doesn't have to make JFK or Platoon every time he steps up to the plate. This particular playful effort proves a bit frustrating, though. Like I said, I was never bored, but I was always aware that Savages had the components to skirt greatness, only to repeatedly trip over its own feet.
( out of four)
Savages is rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.
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