Directed by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone
Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek
How long is Savages? 130 minutes.
What is Savages rated? R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout.
A mediocre action flick that never gets the adrenaline pumping.
No one can argue against the fact that Oliver Stone was one of the most engaging and influential American directors of the last half of the 20th century. The impact of films like Platoon and Wall Street can’t be understated and their place among other modern classics is secure. Stone has never shied away from examining political or social issues close to his heart (see JFK and Natural Born Killers, respectively) and is one of the few directors who makes his opinions, whether popular or not, unapologetically obvious.
In the last decade or so, the fire that fueled his earlier works seems to have petered out. His recent work has felt unnecessarily polemical (W.) or indulgently over stylized (Any Given Sunday). His newest film, Savages, continues this late career trend, sacrificing quality for visual flair and bravado. Based on the novel by Don Winslow (adapted by Winslow, Stone and Shane Salerno), the movie focuses on the dangerous world of drug dealing and the strength of the international cartels — issues already addressed by much finer films like Traffic and Blow.
Our protagonists are a trio of twenty-somethings who are living the high life (no pun intended) in southern California thanks to a lucrative drug venture. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best friends who run one of the most successful marijuana manufacturing operations in the United States. Ben is a botanist who has found a way to grow pot with a substantially higher potency than most strands. He is also the business savvy one, always thinking two or three steps ahead to best manage their business. Chon is a former Navy Seal and veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s the muscle.
The guys share a girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and the three live together in perfect harmony. (The fact that there isn’t even a hint of jealously between the two men is the most absurd and unrealistic aspect of the entire film.) Their paradise is thrown into jeopardy when the powerful Baja Cartel from Mexico decides they want to partner with Ben and Chon and that they don’t really have a choice in the matter. The cartel’s boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), shows the guys how serious she is by having O kidnapped and brought back to Mexico as insurance so that their partnership goes smoothly. Ben and Chon decide to get O back by staging their own offensive push against the Baja Cartel.
While the movie has several components that work well, for the most part it is a giant mess. Most distressing is how there can be such good performances and such terrible performances in the same film, especially from a director like Stone who is known for coaxing wonderful performances from his actors. Johnson is terrific as the green-loving, save-the-earth hippie whose worldview is so laidback that he hardly has a pulse. A pacifist at the beginning of the movie, Ben turns into the thing he hates most in order to get back the thing that is most important to him in this world. After his star-making turn in Kick-Ass, Johnson hasn’t disappointed yet and Savages is yet another solid piece of work.
Most entertaining are Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta. Del Toro plays Lado, Elena’s right hand man and a cold-hearted criminal whose own motivation is self-preservation. Travolta plays Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent who helps Ben and Chon in exchange for a small fee. Travolta is never as good as when he is playing a bad guy and Dennis is pretty awful. Near the end of the film, there is a scene between Del Toro and Travolta that should be shown to every first-year acting student to demonstrate two completely different, but equally impressive, styles of acting.
Others actors in the film are terribly miscast, especially Hayek who couldn’t appear heartless or cruel if her life depended on it. Kitsch also gives a one-note performance, embodying Chon with only one speed: angry. Kitsch cannot be entirely blamed since the character is written as having less depth than a puddle. The film’s script feels clunky and disjointed, never becoming a full-on action movie, but also never raising the stakes high enough to create authentic drama. The film’s climax contains no suspense whatsoever and the third act reversal is laughable (literally, some people were laughing out loud).
Possibly the most disappointing aspect of the entire film is Stone’s glamorization of the drug-dealing lifestyle and fetishizing of marijuana. Never have you seen a film try to make smoking pot look so sexy. If Cheech and Chong ever attempted a serious film, the result would likely be similar to Savages. Stone paints the world that Ben and Chon have created as idyllic and that only a corrupt organization (constantly compared to a corporation or Wal-Mart) could harsh their mellow life.
Savages is a mediocre film from a one-time great director whose idea tank has run empty. The film never fully coalesces into a convincing story and feels more like a bad Tony Scott rip-off than a true Oliver Stone movie.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”