Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone based on Winslow’s novel.
Starring: Blake Lively (O), Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Aaron Johnson (Ben), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), John Travolta (Dennis), Salma Hayek (Elena), Demián Bichir (Alex), Antonio Jaramillo (Jaime), Diego Cataño (Esteban), Shea Whigham (Chad), Joaquín Cosio (El Azul), Emile Hirsch (Spin), Sandra Echeverría (Magda).
Since Oliver Stone’s break though year – 1986 when he made both Salvador and Platoon – he has only made one film – 1997’s U-Turn – that wasn’t overtly political. He couldn’t make a music biopic (The Doors), a historical epic (Alexander) or even a football film (Any Given Sunday), without some sort of political or social message thrown in for good measure. For the most part, I haven’t minded his politics being thrust into his films – they are, actually, one of the things that separates Stone from most filmmakers – he isn’t afraid to piss people off. Having said that though, other than 2008’s underrated W. (a film about George W. Bush that Liberals didn’t think was hard enough on the man and Conservatives decried as a hit job, which is a good sign that it was actually fair). Having said that though, Stone hasn’t made a truly great film since 1995’s Nixon, and often his more recent films seem more like diatribes than movies. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Savages so much. No, it isn’t a great film, and it certainly has flaws, but for the first time since U-Turn, Stone isn’t interested in making some “important” point – and decided to go ahead and make a straight ahead genre film. At that level, Savages is great fun.
Savages focuses on two best friends from high school who have taken different paths in life, but are still together. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) joined the army, and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has become a violent man. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a genius who majored in business and botany, and when he gets Chon to smuggle some of the best pot seeds in the world back from Afghanistan, the two go into business together. They have a loyal customer base – and make a lot of money for two guys on their own, but are still fairly small time in the grand scheme of things. They share everything – including O (Blake Lively), a rich kid who falls in love with both of them. Strangely, there is no jealously into this love triangle – they all know, understand and accept the arrangement. Their business is protected because they pay a DEA Agent, Dennis (John Travolta) to stay out of their way. But now, there is a battle among the cartels in Mexico – forcing them to come North. Elena (Salma Hayek) used to run everything, but now she is being squeezed out. So she sends her lawyer Alex (Demian Bichar) and her muscle Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to make arrangement in California with indie growers – their first stop is Chon and Ben. They cartel is like Wal-Mart – they get what they want, and will do anything to get it. Little do they know that Chon and Ben will do anything to protect what they love?
Savages is a movie without any good guys – everyone in the movie is rotten in some way or another, although few of them are unrepentantly evil either. They are all more complex than that. If Stone is making any sort of point about the War on Drugs, it is that it is pointless. There is way too much money to be made dealing drugs, and when there is that kind of money involved, someone will always fill the need. The drug dealers are business men, and they act like them, even though their business is illegal. One of the amusing things about the movie is how the Cartel negotiates with Ben and Chon – it looks like any other business meeting when a merger is discussed – including terms, length, percentages, etc. The major difference is that if you violate the terms of the deal, they don’t take you to court – they torture you, decapitate you, and make sure that everyone knows about it. That’s the best way to keep everyone in line.
The characters of Savages really aren’t anything new – they are admittedly stock characters – but for the most part the actors make them interesting. Taylor Kitsch is not quite as effective as many of the other actors – but that is basically because Chon is really a one note character. He is a violent, ex-soldier who will do anything to protect what he loves – and he stays that way from beginning to end. Aaron Johnson is better, because he has the better role. He is a peace loving man – essentially a modern day hippie, who hates violence, so he leaves it all up to Chon. But when things change, and his way won’t work, he has to change – to adapt, and he struggles with it. Blake Lively is probably the biggest disappointment in the cast, as I don’t think she has the acting chops to handle what should be a showcase role for her. She is the film’s narrator, and should be its most complex character, but while Lively isn’t bad by any means, she doesn’t make O the centerpiece of the film as she should be. The actors are on the Cartel side are more effective though. Demian Bichar, a surprise Oscar nominee for last year’s A Better Life where he played a regular Mexican father who wants more for his son, is in fine form as the slimy lawyer who works for Elena. Always dressed in expensive suits, he plays up the business end of the film – he knows violence goes on, but wants no part of it. Salma Hayek starts off a little one note as the ruthless head of the cartel, but her performance gets more complex the more we know about her – and he delivers her best performance in years in the role. Then there is Benicio Del Toro, whose Lado could have a one dimensional psychopath, but as Del Toro is always able to do, he adds a little more complexity to it. This is really the flip side to his Oscar winning role in Steven Soderbergh’s traffic, as the only honest cop in Mexico trying to take down the cartels. Here is Lado is the most brutal, violent character in the movie – but there is intelligence there. He may in fact be the smartest one in the movie. And finally, it is nice to see John Travolta embrace his dark side for the first time in a while as Dennis, the DEA agent. Everyone else in the movie has at least some loyalty to someone – and despite him having a sick wife, and two young daughters, Dennis is the most amoral character in the movie – with loyalty only to himself.
Stone has always been one of the best visual stylists in the movie – and although his type of filmmaking, perfected in movies like JFK and Natural Born Killers – may have popularized the rapid fire editing that I often find annoying, Stone has always been capable of using it effectively. Yes, he goes a little too far over the top in moments of Savages (I could have done without the large ticking clock superimposed over images in one tense sequence, or the map in another), for the most part, Savages shows Stone at his relentless best. The film is fast paced and violent, pretty much from beginning to end, but as Stone showed in Natural Born Killers, there is perhaps no one better at putting chaos on screen while still making it coherent – and he does so well here. He also co-wrote the screenplay, and most of it is great genre writing – with clipped, terse dialogue but sometimes it goes a little too far – is a little too on the nose for its good, or either straining too hard to be clever (not having read Don Winslow’s novel, I don’t know how much is lifted from his book, but there are some things that on the page, that don’t when spoken aloud – like O saying “I have orgasms. Chon has wargasms”). The climax of the movie is also a mistake – not sure if it qualifies as a copout or not, but it certainly doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense given what has come before. Instead of what they do, they should have found a better, more believable (and singular) way to handle to inevitable “Mexican standoff” that ends the film.
Savages is a fast paced, entertaining crime thriller that is appropriately, strongly violent. Back when Stone made U-Turn, he was coming off a decade long run of great or near great films, and many, myself included, thought that perhaps Stone just wanted a little break – making a genre film to try and recharge his batteries before pressing on to doing more great films again. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I hope that this time – 15 years later – Stone’s latest genre experiment serves to get him back to his dark, violent roots. In the years since Stone’s last masterpiece, Nixon (1995), there has been a gap in American filmmaking – a gap that only someone has crazy yet passionate as Stone can fill. I hope he’s got some great films left in him – but at least Savages is a great genre film for Stone. It’s now for him to do something even better.