Savages is the best Oliver Stone film since Platoon!
No that’s a lie.
Most of what’s needed to be written about Savages has been written, so I thought I might make a vain attempt at giving “another perspective” but I can’t. I really can’t. It’s been thirteen years since his last truly good film; Any Given Sunday. Before it’s release in the UK I was excited at the prospect of Stone getting back to his hyper-crazy visual style and twisted sense of violence like he’d done so many times. His most recent films Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W. and World Trade Center gave the impression that with age the great director was getting settled in for the night with a blanket and a nice cup of Ovaltine. Compared to his former triumphs he’s been pretty dull of late.
Savages finds Stone trying to re-capture his youth and vigor. He returns to the world of narcotics for the first time since he wrote Scarface thirty years ago. Instead of cocaine this time it’s weed. Woooo. The most boring of all illegal highs. Grown and distributed by Ben (a wide-eyed/bug-eyed Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (I could have sworn they were saying Sean all the way through the film, anyway he’s played by John Carter of Mars). Ben is the liberal minded, friend of the Earth buddhist. Chon is the war scarred, slightly unhinged muscle of the operation. The two seem to have very little in common apart from O (Blake Lively) he lives with the pair as their girlfriend, friend, sister, daughter, poddle – it’s an odd relationship.
They are approached to join a large drug cartel ruled over by Elena (Salma Hayek) and enforced by Lado (Benicio Del Toro). When they respectfully decline the offer they go bat shit crazy, kill people and kidnap O so that Ben and Chon… no, no he’s Sean from now on… will do their bidding. Oh yeah and John Travolta’s in the film as a crooked DEA agent. His character does little else than to explain away why all these criminals haven’t been arrested yet. That’s literally all he’s there for.
Like a said before it came out I was genuinely excited for Savages. A trip to the motion picture house was a “meh” experience at best but having been given a copy to review I re-watched it quicker than I was expecting to. If anything my slight indifference and disappointment has turned to full blown dislike. Oliver Stone seems to have fallen in love with these young-uns’, that or he wishes to be like them once more. Perhaps his camera really does have soul stealing properties and next we see him on the interview trail he will have grown more youthful in some kind of Dorian Grey/Bubba Ho-Tep hybrid wearing puffy directing trousers. So we’re stuck with the three central young performers who really aren’t that interesting as characters. The plot in a nutshell: drug dealers live the best life ever, people try to stop them living the most awesome life ever, we cry “boo” at this people, applaud them in their journey to get their lovely drug-fueled Elysium back. I’m not trying to be up on my soap box about applauding drug dealers. I’ve cheered for many a scum bag in cinema. But the we’re supposed to cheer these “heroes” and sneer at the Mexican cartel just because they’re a bit less violent.
The lead three performances also don’t help much. Taylor-Johnson, who is usually very watchable, turns in a frankly annoying performance as “nice” drug dealer who after the 1000th time of complaining about not wanting any violence you fell like smacking round the head, pointing him towards a gun store and saying “get with the program”. O’s narration and tedious little asides like asking after John Travolta’s dying wife try to show you what a nice guy he is. But he ain’t Martin Sheen and this ain’t The Departed (as that is the standard by how nice people in movies are measured). John Carter of Mars doesn’t a decent job playing the robot like war veteran. He plays cold and steely very cold and steely but ultimately he is so cold and steely that you probably will not give a damn if he lives or dies. Then finally there’s Blake Lively. Who to be honest is just as bad as you may have heard. That’s not to say her performance is bad. It’s actually okay, she might win the award for my croaky, unnecessary, irritating voice over of the year though. The problem lies in the character. She’s neither victim or heroine. She spends the entire film asking for things and then kicking and screaming when she doesn’t get her own way – and this is when she’s been kidnapped. Fair enough you may be perturbed at being kidnapped but the way she deals with her captures I’m surprised they didn’t just decide to get rid of her and put one of their own people in a wig. She walks through the film in judgement of all around without having an sort of development where she might think “wow, what a fucked up life I’m living”. But why would she do that Oliver Stone thinks she’s perfect , right down to the perfume commercial shots of her on the beach.
Where the film really comes alive is anytime the three older actors are on screen. They know exactly what they’re here to do. John Travolta finally gets to work with Stone after dropping out of The Doors all those years ago. As I’ve said the character adds little but he seems to be enjoying himself, which is nice. One of the films highlights is the short scene between him and Benicio Del Toro. Savages belongs to Del Toro who seems to be channeling Dr. Gonzo as a drug crazy assassin. It’s the absolute antithesis to his performance in Traffic both characterewise and actingwise. The film really livens up whenever he’s on screen and sometimes really does seem to be winking at the camera. Salma Hayek too manages to give a performance that straddles both exploitation bombast and dramatic pathos. Despite being the only female cartel boss and ruling with an iron fist she longs for the affections of her daughter, turning in some of the films only genuinely touching scenes.
But that’s a whole lot of talk about character and acting. What of Stone’s trademark style. You know that style where he cuts to metaphorical horses galloping, thunder cracking, sudden b&w shots and clips seemingly taken from b-roll. Well it’s back and it’s glorious to see. Stone didn’t need to make a film about sexy 20-somethings to get his groove back he just needed to get it on with his editing suite. Stone’s editing style is a bit Marmite but for my mind it brings an intensity and heightened sense of menace or anguish whenever deployed. It’s good to see Stone back on form visually. It’s just a shame the script is so poor. It could be easily 20 minutes shorter and with out spoiling the ending, I seriously wanted some kind of financial recompense from the studio when I first saw it. It’s bullshit. Oh yes and another thing; the line “I had orgasms, Sean (Chon) has war-gasms” is one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines for a long time. This from the man who gave us “Greed is good” speech.
It’s great to see Stone back to trying edgier fare both visually and story wise but he needs to find some more lovable villains next time round.
The extended Blu-ray comes with more Benicio which is certainly not a bad thing.
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