Guest Movie Review: Savages
At the beginning of Oliver Stone’s Savages, we are introduced to “O,” played by the talented and beautiful Blake Lively. We are informed that her full name is Ophelia and that she is named after Shakespeare’s “basket case who committed suicide,” hence the shortening to O. After about ten minutes of O’s stilted narration and “character development,” you’ll find yourself wishing she would simply follow her namesake into the dark recesses of death. And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem with Savages, adapted from the critically-acclaimed Don Winslow novel: the central character, around whom all the plots, double-crosses and violence revolve, isn’t worth anybody’s time, let alone shed blood.
Oliver Stone is certainly known as a director unafraid to tackle controversial ideas or political agendas. He struck gold in the eighties and nineties with hits such as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, at least in part because no other directors would touch such stuff. But of all his works, probably the one that most resembles his latest endeavor is 1994’s Natural Born Killers. In NBK, Stone took two characters so profoundly unlikable and evil – multiple-murderers Micky and Malory (played perfectly by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) – and did an outstanding job exploring how society reacts to celebrities, no matter the reason. Stone was on top of his game, and the past decade has featured nothing to rival what he produced then. so it makes sense to look back to the criminal elements in his past efforts, even if his protagonists are Laguna Beach marijuana distributors and not (immediately) violent psychopaths.
Actually, there’s a lot to like about the guys who headline Savages, though I’m certainly surprised to see myself write this. The problems of Taylor Kitsch have been well documented for my readers. Both of his hoped-for blockbusters, Battleship and John Carter, were critical and financial disasters. His acting in both was bland, leading me to believe that his career would be irredeemable. And Aaron Johnson has been practically an absentee since breaking out in 2010’s Kick Ass, failing to translate his initial success into a strong movie career. For young talents, neither has done much to prove themselves, making one wonder just what they could possibly do to change that perception.
And yet Kitsch and Johnson managed to surprise me in the strengths of their performances, easily making themselves the only consistent reasons to see Savages. Stoner friends since high school, Ben (Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch) entered into business together, growing and selling the best weed in Los Angeles. Together, they made their business a thriving success, known around the world for the quality of their product, while living a hedonistic lifestyle on the beach with their shared girlfriend, O. Buddhist Ben is a graduate of Berkeley and the ultimate pacifist, using the money he earns to provide help to the needy around the world. As O puts it, “he takes 99% of the violence” out of the drug trade. But when people don’t want to play nice, having a former Navy SEAL like Chon around helps immensely in enforcing the rules. Still, these two are in over their heads when the Baja Cartel out of Mexico wants to expand into their area and take over their tidy organization. The cartel, headed by the ruthless Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) makes the duo an offer: join us for three years, educate our scientists in growing your particular strands of marijuana, and get a sizeable cut of the profits. The two want to get out of the game, however, and going against the advice of a DEA agent they have in their pocket (John Travolta), Ben and Chon reject the offer. Enraged, Elena has her people in California kidnap O as an incentive for the boys to reconsider. Forced into a corner, Ben and Chon decide to do the one thing the Cartel will never expect: fight back.
It’s easy to see why these two guys are so likable; they’re not dumb stereotypes. Ben is a combination of peace-loving attitude and near-genius brain power. He has dedicated his time and effort to the drug trade not to make money, but to help people, a distinction that is obvious from the start. Chon is a soldier, but not a heartless monster. He’s broken somewhat from his two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is trying to work the demons out of his system. Both of these guys are smart, but for different reasons: Ben knows botany and how to run a successful business; Chon knows how people will react to situations and how to use that to his advantage. Together they make for a formidable duo, and when they are forced to do things they wouldn’t normally to save the life of O, it affects them in ways with which the audience can easily sympathize. They are the perfect pair of best friends.
That’s where O derails the whole process. To be blunt, O is useless, and not just in the cinematic sense. She narrates huge swaths of the story, and we’re constantly subjected to lines like “I have orgasms; he was war-gasms” in dry, uninterested tones. Perhaps things would have been different if the script had more clearly defined her role beyond “spoiled little rich girl/sex toy,” but I just never bought the idea that O, as a character, was someone worth risking everything to bring into my life, let alone protect. If she (and sadly, Lively) had brought anything to prove that she belonged at the same table as the film’s stronger characters, things would have been different. While Ben and Chon ride high as likable anti-heroes, O’s contributions of good looks, sex appeal and portraying inanimate objects simply can’t compare.
Of course, this is a film that doesn’t seem to like anyone, so I suppose it’s not surprising that so many talented actors are given the shaft as far as their roles go. Hayek is by far the best, her talents managing to more than compensate for the utter lack of depth the script gives her character. John Travolta, meanwhile, is exactly what you might expect. Academy Award nominee Demian Bichir is excellent, though his role itself is barely worth mentioning. The absolute worst is Benicio del Toro as Lago, Elena’s right-hand man. I’ve always considered del Toro to be worth watching, from his award-winning roles in The Usual Suspects, Traffic, and 21 Grams. Here however he manages to be both pathetic and annoying, not things I want to see in one of the film’s main antagonists. It’s a big misstep for one of Hollywood’s better performers.
Such missteps seem to be standard for Stone’s latest film, which can’t decide how to carry their at-times promising stories. I understand that even the director is subject to the tale he has inherited – in this case Winslow’s – but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a movie worth watching. That potential seems to elude Savages, which manages to waste so much in producing so little. One example of the story’s cleverness is the view of one party through the eyes of the other. Ben and Chon run a respectable, largely nonviolent business, and see the contemptible actions of the Mexican Cartels as the work of “savages.” Meanwhile, the cartel operators are all family people, with wives (or husbands) and children waiting for them at home. Though some of these family situations might be strained, they still look upon the sex-and-drugs lifestyles of Ben, Chon and O and call them – you guessed it – “savages.” It’s an interesting statement on the nature of the drug business, but it’s truly great details like these that get lost in the shuffle, as Stone wastes far too much time setting up minor conflicts and going for the (very) cheap laugh when he has an opportunity.
Thanks to all that, O’s lame voice-overs, less violence than sex (despite demands of the opposite) and an ending that can only be called patently ridiculous, Savages manages to rank as one of the year’s worst films. It’s not for lack of trying, though I can only imagine what the result would have been had a lesser director than Stone been in charge of the camera. It’s a shame, since the film’s two heroes are among the most interesting characters to hit the big screen this year, and are played by two young men I now believe to have real Hollywood potential. Still, you’d have to be one of Ben and Chon’s customers to actually like this movie (which would account for much of the inappropriate laughter in my theater), and no amount of recreational inhalants will convince me that O was good for anything. I’d love to say that there’s one big thing that will save Savages from complete obscurity, but the truth is that this is a bad movie with a bad story, told in a very bad way. The only reason it’s playing at a theater near you is the man who was in charge of putting it all together, but that won’t be enough to keep it in our collective memories for long. Expect to have forgotten this one existed once summer comes to a close.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for all his latest movie reviews.