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Saturday, July 7, 2012

REVIEW: Oliver Stone Gets Back to His Usual Bloody, Pithy, and Mythical Fare with "Savages"

Director Oliver Stone may be responsible for some of the biggest missteps in recent cinematic history (Wall Street 2 anyone?), but the filmmaker will never be forgotten for his classics, including Natural Born Killers, JFK, Wall Street and Platoon). His newest film, Savages, fiercely teeters on the edge of both extremes, and fortunately settles on the latter.

Stone, with his co-writers Shane Salerno (Shaft) and Don Winslow (whose only film credit is Full Ride), takes the audience to the back labs of a small but legendary marijuana drug business ran by two longtime California buds, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aron Johnson). They introduce us to a life in excess--sun, beaches, pot growing and money. But even with many indulgences handed to them, they still feel the need to cut back on dating expenses by screwing romancing the same girl, O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively). This all seems to be working out for them until Ben wants to take his financial winnings and step away from the business, but the Mexican cartel he and Chon have gotten themselves mixed up in wants not only their notorious drug recipes, but a three-year commitment from them. And to make their offer more appealing, the cartel, led by the no-nonsense Elena (Salma Hayek), kidnap the boys' prize possession--O. What happens next is makeshift war between the California pals (who have to become serious crime lords) and an established and ruthless team of drug lords, and everyone becomes a savage.

It was definitely fascinating to see these Golden State surfer dudes turn into badass criminals seemingly overnight, but it's clear the more interesting character is Ben, who is one of the film's moral compasses, so to speak. Ben's transgression from where he is at the start of the movie to whom he becomes by the end is compelling, and seems more gradual than his more angst-ridden pal Chon's further descent into violence and warfare. Meanwhile, their business associate/DEA agent Dennis comes off a bit cartoony at first, but John Travolta actually makes it work for the character.

The person who really seems to be living in la la land here is also the object of every character's affection in the movie--O. As the narrator, she opens the movie as this beautiful carefree character whose bubble-like world is heightened by her own romanticizing of it, as well as her luck in finding two good-looking guys who give her everything she needs and desires. As the movie goes on, we get a few references to allude there is more to her backstory than just that, but it is never fully dove into, unfortunately. Since her love triangle with the boys  jumpstarts the movie, the audience is forced to sit through an awkward ménage à trois and a few eyeroll-worthy scenes between the trio.

So those first twenty minutes or so is a bit numbing, but does at least introduce and set up the characters, as well as their evolution as the film progresses. And that's right around the time when we meet the movie's more riveting characters, Elena, Lado (Benicio del Toro) and Alex (Demián Bichir). Elena is the brute cartel femme who manages to not only terrify her peons Lado and Alex, but also paralyzes the audience in fear. But she's also the other moral compass for the entire second part of the movie. She is a mom with a conscience she never shows to her male workers, but which you really only see when she is in scenes alone or with O. This is definitely one of Hayek's best roles since 2002's Frida, and one which rightfully shows off her exceptional talent as an actress.

The always awesome Del Toro is also fantastic in the movie as well, and he is seriously loco en la cebeza as Lado. But, he's also really funny at the least expecting moments in the movie. It's like he's the comic relief but also the nut of the movie. It works. Same for Bichir. who follows up his Oscar-nominated performance for A Better Life with a character at the other extreme, who also has a surprising soulful side to him.

Savages may come off choppy in the very beginning, but it does springboards to a really fantastical second half. Taking a premise that is not wholly unique, and making it unique by romanticizing not only the drug business but the lives of those involved, is not easy. The relationship between the young California people will definitely throw you at first, but it ended up being an interesting twist to a classic drug crime story, uplifted by its casual dream states and themes of motherhood and friendship. You can't knock this incredible endeavor by Stone.

Rating: B+


Stephanie said...

This does sound like an interesting though uneven movie. Thanks for the excellent review.

Daniel said...

Don't know why but Johnson just didn't do much for me but I'll give it another go before I decide for sure. Stone really surprised me with this, really didn't think he had it in him anymore.

Courtney Small said...

Hayek and del Toro are the main reasons I am interested in seeing this film. The reviews so far have been less than glowing so it is nice to read a positive perspective on the film. Great review.

s. said...

Glad to know this one is not terrible, after Stone's recent movies I was expecting the worst. I can't wait to see this one, mostly for Hayek, it's been a long time since I saw her in something good.

Christopher Long said...

Hi Candice! I'm a new "Follower" -- well-done review. And yes, Del Toro truly is "always awesome" indeed.

Brittani Burnham said...

I'm interested in seeing this film, but Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively are kind of off putting for me. I just don't think they are very strong actors.

Alex Withrow said...

Nice review, really glad you dug the performances as much as I did. Del Toro, Bichir and Hayek just killed it here. Excellent work all around. I did take issue with parts of the story, but I enjoyed the flick all the same.

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