STARRING Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta and Demian Bichir DIRECTED BY Oliver Stone SCREENPLAY Don Winslow (Novel), Oliver Stone, Shane Salerno MPAA RATING Rated R RUNNING TIME 129 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY Universal Pictures DVD EXTRAS Bonus features include: Feature Commentary with Oliver Stone, Feature Commentary with producers Moritaz Borman, Eric Kopleloff, Co-Screenwriter/Novelist Don Winslow, Executive Producer/Co-Screenwrither Shane Salerno and Production Designer Tomas Voth. Blu-ray exclusive features are: 'Stone Cold Savages' five-part featurette, Deleted Scenes and a Digital Copy of the film.
There are moments in Oliver Stone's Savages when you find yourself holding your breath and just hoping that the Oliver Stone that we all grew to know and love had returned. You know the Oliver Stone I'm talking about? I'm talking about the Oliver Stone whose Natural Born Killers and U-Turn were electrifying and awesome and endlessly thought-provoking. Stone has shown flashes of ballsy brilliance since then, but far too often his films have become bogged down by his incessant need for intellectual self-satisfaction and narcissistic meandering.
At his worst, Oliver Stone is a good filmmaker. At his best, he's freakin' brilliant. Savages sits squarely in the middle.
The film kicks off with a voice-over narration served up by Blake Lively, who is also one of the film's key players. She cautions the audience that "Just because I'm telling you this doesn't mean I'm alive at the end." This means, of course, that she's alive at the end but the narrative and the action that follows certainly succeeds at sending up some doubt that Stone will follow the usual rules of storytelling and plot. Blake is the beautiful O, short for Ophelia, who lives an idyllic life in Hawaii with two lovers, Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter). Ben and Chon co-exist as successful partners in a marijuana growing mini-dynasty borne out of Chon's ability to bring back premium seeds from his time as a Navy Seal in Afghanistan.
Ben is a do-gooder Buddhist with a penchant for serving others in far-away lands. Chon is, according to O, a "Baddist," a man who fucks while Ben makes love.
O would know. She's lover to them both, an arrangement they all accept as O represents the home the two men have never had and Ben and Chon represent the security and stability that O has never known.
While I'd be perfectly content to watch a film about a pot growing threesome in which Blake Lively is a part, Savages isn't about happiness or making love or unresolved family issues. Ben's ability to grow top-notch marijuana has attracted the attention of Mexico's Baja Cartel, a cartel led by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her right-hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Elena wants her cartel to partner with Ben and Chon if, by partnering, it's meant that she wants to infiltrate their business and learn all their secrets.
Ben and Chon? They'll pass. That is, at least, until their precious O is picked up by the cartel in an effort to force Ben and Chon into the deal.
Savages is about that one weakness that every human being has and what happens when the only thing you love gets taken away.
As I noted in the beginning, Savages comes pretty darn close to being quintessential Oliver Stone and a distant cousin to Natural Born Killers. The film is stylized, brutal, violent, graphic and a little funny.
The biggest problem is that Stone is simply trying too hard to turn back the hands of time. Whereas Natural Born Killers was unique, innovative and inspired, Savages all too often feels overly stylized, emotionally manipulative and detached in the worst of ways. The problem starts with the threesome itself, a not particularly convincing tryst bullied into submission by Blake Lively's almost meditative voice-over that derails almost anything resembling an emotionally resonant moment. It's certainly fun seeing Kick-Ass's Aaron Johnson in such a graphic, "balls to the walls" kind of role, but his camaraderie with Kitsch's Chon is far more convincing than his sexual chemistry with Blake Lively's O.
Kitsch? Well, to his credit there's no doubt that Kitsch serves up his best performance in recent memory here as the enforcer of the group. Of course, recent memory includes such forgettable fare as John Carter, Battleship, John Tucker Must Die and The Covenant. This might be the perfect type of role for Kitsch, an actor of limited emotional range with a physique well made for action flicks.
Do I hear The Expendables 3 calling?
There's no way that Savages would be worthy of a recommendation if not for the surprisingly terrific performances of its supporting players. Salma Hayek hasn't had a role this complex and satisfying in years, and she certainly makes the most of it as the truly vicious leader of the Mexican drug cartel. Hayek is deliciously brutal as Elena, though her somewhat drastic turn towards the end is less convincing. Benicio Del Toro is the film's ultimate baddie, but he also takes the role of Lado in places where most actors wouldn't have dared to go. Finally, John Travolta gives the film much of its humor as Dennis, a double-dealing (or is that triple?) DEA agent who plays so many sides of the fence that Mexico could likely have its own Great Wall.
D.P. Daniel Mindel taps into Stone's hallucinatory vibe and lenses the film in a wide-ranging color palette that is visually appealing if not always completely satisfying. It feels like Stone is going for pulp here, but he unfortunately ends up settling for Kitsch.
I know. I know. Bad joke.
The worst feeling you can get in an action flick is when you reach the inevitable climactic fight and find yourself not exactly sure who you should root for? Do we root for the peace-loving Buddhist pothead with a killer marijuana growing formula? Do we have the audacity to root for the slightly humanized leader of a drug cartel whose graphic exploits are splashed at the screen throughout the film?
The answers would be "No" and "No."
What's really savage is to spend over two hours experiencing this much bloodshed and violence only to exit the theater muttering to yourself "Who cares?"