MovieJay Takes On Oliver Stone’s “The Savages”
Savages finds Oliver Stone at his darkest and most lurid since U-Turn and Natural Born Killers. Taken from the best-seller by Don Winslow, this daylight noir and western is filled with potheads, snakes, and street values in a tale that is less about the war on drugs than it is about the survival of the fittest.
On the American side, our three sunkissed-sexy leads are Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben (Aaron Johnson), and their SoCal girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively), who goes by O for short. Chon is the muscle in their grand marijuana operation, an Iraq War vet and Navy SEAL who came home with PTSD as well as some of the finest seeds in the world. Ben is the Zuckerberg of botanists, harvesting and growing the seeds into strains of dope with irrationally high levels of THC. He also moonlights as a philanthropist, pouring hefty sums of cash as well as his own time into ventures involving third-world children and the like.
Narrated by an ever-omniscient O, the movie opens with more than one bang with Chon pounding her into oblivion. “I have orgasms, he has wargasms”, reports a coolly detached O. Later, upon Ben’s arrival home from Africa, Chon sets out for a “long swim”, which is really admirable of him since it allows Ben and O time to frolic in the bathtub and enjoy a slower, more passionate sex scene.
Together, they’re “the Buddhist and the Baddist”, as O aptly calls them, with her as the link between them in a menage-a-trois that appears to suit them all just fine. They’re young, sexy, and rich off of a trade that sees them shacked up in a picturesque, oceanside home on Laguna Beach in California.
Interrupting the erotic three-play is the Baja cartel from Mexico, headed by La Reina in Elena (Salma Hayek). Her cartel is waging a losing battle on her side of the border with the El Azul cartel, prompting her to look north of the border to our ripe, fleshy threesome. In a dramatic turnabout here, Demian Bichir–Oscar nominee for best actor last year as an illegal immigrant in A Better Life –turns in a fine performance as Elena’s lawyer, who is sent with a team of henchmen to meet with Chon and Ben after having shown them video footage of some of their Mexican connections being gruesomely decapitated.
They give our young Americans an offer they implicitly can not refuse when Elena has O kidnapped by Lado (Benicio Del Toro), her stateside muscle–an ugly character oozing machismo and other foul things. Elena wants in on the lucrative business that Chon and Ben have going, forcing them into a 3-year deal that will see O released after one year. After wanting to negotiate, Ben finally gives way to Chon’s instinct that they should not have shown any fear in the first place, and he assembles some of his badass war buddies in a serpentine plot that eventually ratchets up the violence as Ben and Chon mix brains and brawn in a war against Elena’s cartel.
Also in the mix is Drug Enforcement Administration agent Dennis (John Travolta), a weasel of a character who enables Chon and Ben stateside, but who appears to have his own hand in several different pots all at once. Travolta is perfect here in a character role that sees him looking worn and aged with his receding hairline and expanding gut. His best moment comes in his incredulity after Chon viciously attacks him, “You just stabbed a federal agent!”.
Savages is a compulsive watch throughout. While it gives Oliver Stone fans a taste of what they desire most from him, I’m not sure it gives them everything they deserve. The sex scenes are erotic, highlighted by wonderful cinematography by Daniel Mindel (John Carter, Domino). The supporting players are in fine form, from the gruff and ratty Del Toro to Hayek’s queen bee to Bichir’s suave lawyer to Travolta’s slippery DEA guy. And then there’s the brutal violence, abrupt and visceral, handled with the utmost craftsmanship. At one point the audience was gasping as one character’s eye is left dangling out of its socket in a vicious torture scene.
While all those qualities are nice and good, you can never shake the sense that Oliver Stone is pulling his punches here in a tepid effort that is all style over substance. On that level, I have to admit that it works, but don’t you dare go looking for anything deeper having to do with the politics of the war on drugs or for any other meaning, because there is none. And it’s reflected throughout in O’s ironically detached narration that often plays like a Blu-Ray commentary that I wanted to shut off so that I could enjoy the ruthless energy running underneath it in far too many scenes that have her gabbing away at expository dialogue that should have been left in the first act.
And what of O? I fault the screenplay by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno for not having a clue about what to do with her. Lively is so enticing and tantalizing as the hedonistic O, but then she’s trapped as a helpless victim in a movie where all of the other characters are allowed their own personal attributes and shaddy motives. You feel like that if Tarantino had given this thing a polish, O might have been given her own angles here. And as for the threesome, as hot as I felt they were, Stone cops out from having to deal with answering or exploring the questions even his own screenplay asks about their dynamic. They seem to buy into their romantic triangle, but I never quite gave myself over to it. Why is Stone afraid to deal with the feelings Chon and Ben have for each other?
Savages percolates with sex and violence in a tale of evil and the good people who decide to join the dark side, but as far as experiences go, there’s no there-there. Stone can have his argument about the ridiculousness of the war on drugs, but this is not a movie that makes that argument–other than to point out, I suppose, that if drugs were legalized, movies like this could not exist, which I’m not sure is a bad or a good thing.It’s flashy, trashy, violent and sexy, but don’t go looking for anything beyond a one-night stand with this picture.
**½ (out of 4)