By Don Simpson | July 5, 2012
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Oliver Stone (screenplay), Shane Salerno (screenplay), Don Winslow (screenplay, novel)
Starring: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Diego Cataño, Shea Whigham, Joaquín Cosio, John Travolta, Jonathan Carr, Demián Bichir, Antonio Jaramillo, Salma Hayek, Jake McLaughlin, Alexander Wraith, Anthony Cutolo, Emile Hirsch, Sandra Echeverría
Do you remember that onslaught of independent films produced in the mid-to-late 1990s that attempted to ride on the coattails of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers? For about five years — thanks in no small part to Stone and Tarantino (and by proxy, John Woo) — American independent cinema took a temporary detour into a clusterfuck of hyper-stylized violence. It seemed like every single one of these films was a half-cocked cocktail of drugs, money, guns, explosions and sexy women; I say half-cocked because, unlike Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, these films are pure unadulterated style over substance. Well, Stone’s Savages really wants to be one of these films, only it has been released about 15 years too late.
In what is being heralded by some as a “return to form,” writer-director Oliver Stone relies all-too-heavily upon the voiceover narration of O (Blake Lively) — who teases us with hints that she might just be communicating with us from the afterlife — to set up her three-way relationship with entrepreneurial marijuana cultivators, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). You see, Ben and Chon share O, sometimes at the same time (adding fuel to the right-wing’s perception of marijuana as an immoral drug), and as long as the two guys are capable of providing O with orgasms-a-plenty and a credit card (for binge shopping at the mall, of course) she will stick around.
As if attempting to take a page from John Woo’s playbook, Ben and Chon have an intense brotherly bond, but they have very little in common. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who has been forever traumatized by harrowing tours of Afghanistan and Iraq (while having sex with O, he has “wargasms”); in other words, he is the irrational brawn of the duo. Ben is a peaceful Buddhist who donates much of his time and money to help save the world; in other words, he is the rational brains of the duo.
Ben and Chon have cultivated a strand of Afghan marijuana that clocks in at an unfathomable 33% THC and their primo product puts their exclusively high-class indie start-up on the radar of a gargantuan Mexican drug cartel (the Walmart of the drug world). The cartel’s leader, Elena (Salma Hayek), wants to bring Ben and Chon’s highly profitable business into her fold, but Ben and Chon naively snub their noses at Elena’s offer (Chon tersely exclaims, “you want us to eat your shit and call it caviar?!”). The problem is, no one ever says no to Elena and gets away with it! Thus, Elena’s dastardly-yet-cartoonish henchman Lobo (Benicio Del Toro) kidnaps O, and all the while he twirls his mustache. Luckily for Ben and Chon, they have an elite squad of ex-Navy SEALs and top-notch IT team at their disposal, which they assemble to plan a scheme to get O back. Somewhere in the middle of the whole mess is a corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta).
As much as I wanted Savages to be a “return to form” for Stone, the film is way too riddled with amateurish mistakes and uneven direction to be compared to the films of his heyday (which, in my humble opinion, came to a grinding halt in 1997 with U-Turn). Yes, I get Savages is intended to be a trashy, fun, pulp-y, genre flick — the problem is that we all know what Stone is (or was) capable of. I might have been willing to cut Stone a little slack if not for the clunky voiceover narration in the film’s opening minutes and the horrendous closing act (several viewers screamed “fuck you, asshole!” at the screen because Stone’s oh-so-hokey antics pissed them off so much). The beginning and ending of Savages both represent examples of the rampantly lazy attempts at being cheeky that ruined far too many of Savages‘ predecessors in the mid-90s.
So, really, the only reason to watch Savages is for John Travolta and Benicio Del Toro’s masterfully comedic supporting performances (especially during the one scene in which they face-off) — though I am still quite unclear as to whether they are intentionally being funny. That reminds me — was Salma Hayak trying to be funny? I have no idea. As for Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch, their sole purpose is be beautiful mannequins.
Speaking of muddled intent, what is Stone really trying to say about marijuana and the war on drugs? Other than a couple heavy-handed attempts to drag medical marijuana into the equation, the perception of marijuana in Savages seems to be incredibly negative. Our perpetually stoned antiheroes — Ben, Chon and O (who visualize themselves as a modern Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) — have reaped millions from the marijuana business, but have lost sight on reality because of their over-reliance upon their own highly potent product. Stone seems to be telling us that marijuana turns people into stupid capitalists who are addicted to materialism.
As for the war on drugs? Well, Stone simply relishes in its ridiculousness. The running joke is that each party views the other parties as savages; but if they all just worked together, there would probably be no need for violence. I guess I expected a little more from Stone, especially given the rare opportunity of featuring a female cartel leader. But, Stone turns Elena into a woman who is just as irrational and brutal as any male cartel leaders we have seen on celluloid; the only difference is that she has a weakness — her motherly instinct to want to see her daughter (Sandra Echeverría).