I often envision Oliver Stone, behind the camera helming one of his films, as a shirtless, tattooed, bandana-wearing maniac whirling his camera frantically in between swigs of liquid peyote. His loud politics and brash aesthetics certainly indicate a man of this image, as do his occasional ventures from political fare (“JFK”, “Nixon”) into more hallucinatory territory. Enter “Savages”, the film long touted as being the ‘one’ to get Stone’s creative juices pumping after a pretty poor showing last decade, what with his “Wall Street” sequel, the George Dubya biopic, and that damned “Alexander”.
“Savages” is a film about kidnapping, weed, robbery, crossing ethical boundaries, the Mexican cartel, murder, and three-way romance. In other words, the exact sort of subversive shtick that should have fired up the 65-year-old Stone’s bad-boy streak of success.
“Savages” is not that film.
“Savages” is so frustrating because it looks the part of all it should have been. Stone certainly utilizes all the tricks in his bag, from his over-saturated color palette to blurred transitions and unorthodox sound choices. Stone knows how it should look, relying on this to disguise the purely conventional, rote storytelling at the core of “Savages”.
Two Laguna Beach buddies, Ben and Chon, produce the best cannabis in the world in an almost completely stress-free, violence-free fashion. All the while, they’re both in an open relationship with their best friend, the gorgeous O. The Mexican cartel takes notice and wants in on their product. Ben and Chon refuse. O is kidnapped. Things get savage.
A top-tier cast has been assembled for this film, of both young and old backgrounds. The young talent infuse the film with the soul, the balance, and the energy it needs. Aaron Johnson is Ben, the laid-back Buddhist counterpart to Taylor Kitsch’s gung-ho Navy SEAL Chon; their unlikely camaraderie is handled particularly nicely in the film. Neither of the two have quite enough presence or force to command the screen by themselves, but when together there’s a definite spark. Ditto the gorgeous Blake Lively as O, continuing her streak of playing slightly edgier characters than her Maxim 100 counterparts.
But the film doesn’t lack screen-chewing, that’s for sure. The bearded Benicio del Toro plays his cartel henchman character, Lado, with a sort of menace and mean streak I’ve never seen from the guy before. Particularly villainous is Salma Hayek as the leader of the cartel giving our protagonists their troubles. Hayek marries Old Hollywood glamour and downtrodden grittiness in her role, something I’ve never quite seen before but would love to see again. John Travolta puts in a nice 15 minutes as a hilariously corrupt DEA agent aiding both sides of the feud.
As stressed earlier, the trippy techniques Stone tries to apply to “Savages” sort of backfire in two ways. One, they underpin how conventional Stone’s actual storytelling is, all the while distracting him from doing much actual storytelling. It’s difficult to characterize why not, but Oliver Stone just can’t get us to care terribly for these characters. When they’re on-screen spouting lines and bullets there’s a sense of immediacy, but as these sequences are viewed as a whole it never resonates emotionally.
Perhaps most ironic about this? Stone soaks his source material, the great 2010 Don Winslow novel, in saccharine cliches. From the addition of obtrusive voiceover from Blake Lively’s character, to the attempts to humanize some of the more despicable characters in the film, to the absolute shitstorm of an ending. These attempts to make “Savages” more palatable eventually undo everything great about its characters in the first place: amorality. It’s what made the book great, and its absence makes these “Savages” seem positively tame. C