There must have been a contest among the actors on the set of Olivier Stone’s new and often ludicrous movie “Savages” to see who could play the biggest badass. I’d call it a four-way tie among Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek.
The loser is the audience that forked over good money to watch yet another cinematic drug deal gone bad. (Do they ever go well in movies?) For Oliver Stone this is a step back to the ultra violence of “Natural Born Killers” and “U Turn,” which is not necessarily a bad thing if he had anything to say about the drug cartels or their unusual way of doing business. Alas, he does not.
Let’s give the man his due though: For a while, the rapidly escalating plot lines, shifts in locales, double and triple jeopardy and tough-as-nails dialogue keep you very focused on what’s happening. But too much improbable b.s. and a bad narration by Blake Lively as one of the story’s characters push the movie over the edge into camp. Who wrote that amazing narration which begins: “Just’ cause I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.”
Sounds like bad Jim Thompson to me. (Screenplay credits read: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Stone based on the novel by Winslow so you figure who deserves the blame.)
The movie is such a cesspool wallow that it’s tough to find any moral high ground. But, guess what, it’s the three white people! One is Chon (Taylor Kirtsch), a former Navy SEAL who is paid to kill people wherever killing needs to be done. The other is a supposedly mild-mannered Buddhist named Ben (Aaron Johnson), who grows the world’s best designer weed. The third angle in this triangle is O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively), who’s been stoned since the eighth grade and sees nothing wrong with a ménage-à-trois with the two guys. (Paging Noel Coward.)
They all live in Laguna Beach, California, and the only real challenge in their lives would be working on their tans if those damn Mexicans hadn’t showed up. This would be a border cartel, that wants a piece of their action and move around Southern California as if it were Baja. Since the most corrupt DEA officer in movie history, played by John Travolta in a beautifully over-the-top, dripping-with-corruption mode, keeps the entire southern part of the state safe for these banditos, there’s no chance the bicycling-riding cops of Laguna would ever lay a hand on these “savages.”
By the way, the movie has a lot of fun with that word — savages. The Americans, i.e., the white people, call the Mexicans that because the gangs think nothing of chain-sawing off the heads of people who annoy them. The Mexicans use the same term to describe Chon, Ben and O since they find their three-way thing off-putting. But is smoking weed and going to bed in threes really the same as cutting off heads? What Stone seems to want audiences to take for moral ambiguity is really just fuzzy thinking and overwrought storytelling.
When Chon and Ben don’t immediately roll over and play dead for the Mexicans, the gang thinks it can influence them by kidnapping O. But white guys can jump, at least in this movie, so they set out to destroy this gang headed, interestingly, by Selma Hayek, playing a very bad widow and mother and looking like she’s enjoying every minute of it.
It’s a shame to see such fine actors as Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichar — only a few months removed from his Oscar nomination, to boot — playing stereotypical Latin scumbags. Everything about the Mexicans in this movie is disturbingly ugly and pathetic.
Yes, I know, this fits the cartels to a T. But really good drama can benefit by turning stereotypes on their heads and surprising you with reversal of expectations. Here everything runs according to plan. Again the exception would be Hayek, easily the most interesting part of this film where the supporting roles tend to be more eye-catching than the young protagonists.
Stone serves up the Southern California slaughter with his by now familiar mix of hyperactive camerawork, snazzy editing and mix of video, film and computer images in black-and-white and saturated color to suggest a bad trip turning into an all-too-realistic nightmare. The score by Adam Peters neatly mixes in source music and even classical music.
But there really isn’t any issue at stake here. Pity Stone didn’t just go with a straight-forward action thriller rather than all this concentration on the word “savages” and pornographic grovel in violence and torture scenes.
Hayek got the idea right away. Have fun with the damn thing. Everyone else acts like this is a performance of “Marat/Sade” in the Abu Ghraib prison.
Opened: July 6, 2012 (Universal Pictures)
Production: Moritz Borman Prods.
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bichir, Sandra Echeverria, Diego Catano, Joaquin Cosio, Jake McLaughlin, Joel David Moore, Leonard Roberts, Shea Whigham
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriters: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone
Based on the novel by: Don Winslow
Producers: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff
Executive producers: Todd Arnow, Fernando Sulichin, Shane Salerno
Director of photography: Dan Mindel
Production designer: Tomas Voth
Music: Adam Peters
Costume designer: Cindy Evans
Editors: Joe Hutshing, Stuart Levy, Alex Marquez
R rating, 132 minutes