To call Oliver Stone's "Savages" a train wreck wouldn't quite be fair, but it wouldn't be far off either. Neither as cool nor as deep as it wants to be, "Savages" plays like a combination of elements from other drug movies, complete with overblown caricatures that are sometimes too much to take seriously and brutal violence devoid of much purpose.
There are some bright points as well, including a humorous turn as a DEA agent by John Travolta, but this is far from groundbreaking cinema from the director who brought us "Natural Born Killers" and "JFK." Often "Savages" feels like it's stuck in between fun drug-industry movies like "Blow" and more serious material like "Traffic," making for a forgettable ensemble that never taps into its potential.
In one of the most irritating voice-over narrations since "Blade Runner," the beautiful Ophelia (Blake Lively) informs us that "just because I'm telling this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it." Ophelia, named after the suicidal character from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," lives a luxurious and privileged life in Laguna Beach, where she shares a multi-million-dollar ocean-front house with Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Somewhat broken from an unexplained past, Ophelia is happy with a pristine love triangle that seems far too good to be true.
Though Ben and Chon live like playboy millionaires without a care in the world, they also run a very successful marijuana business - one so good that the Mexican cartels can't even compete. While Ben spends much of his time on philanthropic missions to Africa, Chon takes out post-war syndrome by smoking copious amounts of his product and bedding Ophelia whenever he can. For two young entrepreneurs, it could get a whole lot worse.
Unfortunately for them, their problems are only just beginning. Though Ben and Chon stay out of the violent aspect of the drug trade, for the most part, soon a dangerous Mexican drug cartel is knocking on their door, wondering how they make such an unbelievable product. In case you've never seen a cinematic portrayal of a Mexican drug cartel, these guys don't mess around, and soon Ben and Chon see that the wrath of a cartel is not something to be taken lightly. "Savages" spends much of its time showing grizzly and graphic violence in order for the audience to see how serious the cartel actually is. After one scene with Benicio Del Toro as a demented hitman named Lado, we pretty much get the point, though Stone continues to hammer the point home for the rest of the movie.
Ben and Chon have a few allies of their own, though. One is a smooth-talking DEA agent (John Travolta) who is happy to help under the assumption that it's all going to be legal soon anyway. Chon also has a bunch of war buddies, who all have joined the team as freelance snipers whenever they're called upon. It's a good thing, too, as opposing them is the domineering Elena (Salma Hayek), a twisted drug kingpin who is just as ruthless as her predecessors. As Elena, Hayek lightens up the movie and has some fun with the role, though much of the dialog leads her astray and she sometimes sounds like a Movie of the Week.
But the portrayal of Elena is the least of the problems in "Savages," as many of the main characters are very disappointing in how thinly they are drawn. Ben, who majored in biology and business at Berkley, is assumed to be the genius behind the method, but he never does or says anything that seems to prove it. Often, Ben just looks and sounds like your average movie stoner, though not even a particularly interesting one. "Savages" could have used James Franco from "Pineapple Express," if only to shake things up a bit. If it wasn't for Lively's painful voice-over, we'd never even know that Ben was the brains of the operation.
Then there's Chon, a soldier who still suffers from his deployment in Iraq. "Savages" at least avoids most of the clichés about soldiers returning from war, but it also completely skips any sort of character development or understanding. How does Chon whip up special-ops teams loaded with rocket launchers at the drop of a hat? Why do men so effortlessly follow his brutal assassination orders? "Savages" doesn't say. Instead, Chon's military background is used as a crutch, almost as if the screenplay simply needed a good reason to have talented snipers backing up the good guys.
"Savages" also nearly sinks under the gratuitous violence. When done well, graphic violence in a movie can drive home an important message that you couldn't get if a film was more sanitized. In Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and "Platoon," two of his best films, cutting back on the graphic violence would have detracted from the purpose of the movie. That "Natural Born Killers" was entertaining in spite of the psychotic violence was much of the point, which is what Stanley Kubrick also showed masterfully in his brilliant "A Clockwork Orange." In "Savages," the violence doesn't show us anything we haven't seen a dozen times before and often feels like it's tossed in for a quick dose of realism and/or shock value.
But the misguided portrayal of violence is only the tip of the iceberg in a movie with its fair share of problems. Outside of Travolta's groveling DEA agent and Del Toro's sociopathic hitman, "Savages" is completely devoid of characters worthy of caring about, leading to a dull experience that's difficult to engage with. Even Ted Demme's flawed "Blow" was ten times more fun and exhilarating. Considering that Oliver Stone has made some remarkable films and got his start writing the screenplay for gangster classic "Scarface," it seemed that he had more to say than hand-me-down ideology about the nature of killing people. Maybe he does, but it doesn't show in "Savages."
by RTT Staff Writer
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