Directed by Oliver Stone, written by Stone, Don Winslow, and Shane Salerno, starring Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, and Benicio Del Toro - Rated R
Oliver Stone has gone missing in the eyes of many film fanatics. His latest work, such as Alexander, World Trade Center, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, has failed to impress many fans of his earlier, amazing work. As a fan of Stone, I tend to give him a break. I thought the final director’s cut of Alexander was great (even if it is over four hours long), and W. felt very much like a return to his old style, though he never went all the way with it. (To clarify, “all the way” means making a movie in the vein of Natural Born Killers, which is one of my favorite Stone films.) I was less enthused with his film about the 9/11 attacks, which was well-made, but too plain for me and I couldn’t find much to like about his Wall Street sequel. With Savages, though, Stone has made a film that deserves to be talked about along with Killers, U Turn, and Any Given Sunday, among others.
Perhaps it’s the plot of “Savages” that brought out the best in Stone. Based on the very stylistic novel of the same name by Don Winslow, Savages is about drugs, corruption, love, and violence. This is Oliver Stone territory. The story follows Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two masterful California marijuana farmers who attract the attention of the Mexican drug cartels once their business starts to boom. Ben is a peace-loving charitable type, while Chon is a hardened ex-Navy SEAL who is willing to do anything for the people he loves; which is where O (Blake Lively) comes into play. O, short for Ophelia, is the mutual girlfriend of Ben and Chon. Theirs isn’t so much a love triangle as it is an extended relationship. There is no rivalry or anything like that to clog the story up. O propels the story because she is kidnapped by the cartel and Ben and Chon must rescue her.
That’s enough story spoiling for you, but the story is more complicated than it might seem as there are a lot of characters and things move very quickly despite the 131 minute running time. What’s important is that the three leads feel like real characters and their relationship seems plausible even though it is certainly different. The three leads are likable and they are the glue of the film. Actually wanting the main characters to get what they want is a key issue too many films fail at these days but Savages gets the job done.
It’s a good thing the leads are likable because the supporting players all try their best to steal the show. First is Salma Hayek as the leader of a cartel. Hayek has played tough, no-nonsense roles before, but never too great effect. (I have just never really bought her as a tough lady.) In Savages, however, she does much better. Maybe it was how the character was written, with her cold-hearted threats and whatnot. Whatever it was, it worked and I almost wanted things to work out for her, even though she is one of the “villains” of the film.
Maybe it’s Hayek’s right hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), who makes her character work. Lado is easily the most despicable character in the film, but Del Toro brings a strange likability to Lado. He is detestably likable, if that’s possible. Del Toro just has a way of speaking and griming up the screen that makes you want to see more of him. He helps Hayek’s performance by being so malicious. If she is able to stand up to him and even discipline a guy like Lado, who could even think to cross her?
The last supporting role worth mentioning is John Travolta as Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent. Travolta isn’t breaking new ground here or anything. He’s played plenty of slimy, double-crossing characters. It’s just so much fun to watch him do his thing.
This is still an Oliver Stone movie, though, and it’s fairly obvious that he directed this. He uses a lot of different film stock (or he digitally altered a lot of scenes to appear that way), the music factors in multiple times and does a great job of setting up the mood, and the camera kind meanders wherever in his frenetic, but not too chaotic, style. And while Stone has never been labeled an action director, Savages has plenty of great action beats that don’t skimp on the blood. This film doesn’t have the fingerprint that “Killers” has, but it’s certainly more of a Stone film than, say, World Trade Center.
Savages is arguably a return to form for Stone (I write “arguably” because I don’t think he ever really lost it or anything). But this is still not an upper tier Stone film. I really enjoyed and will eventually buy this film, but compared to the director’s other classics, this one doesn’t crack the top five. That’s a very hard top five to crack, though. If there is one thing that really keeps Savages out of the upper echelon, it is the ending. I can’t go into it here (check the spoilers section below), but the ending of this film is questionable at best. It certainly raises a debate and at the moment, I lean towards the negative on it, mainly because I found it to be deceiving and unjustified. Aside from that potentially major issue, Savages is one of the better films to come out this year.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Okay, that ridiculous rewind ending. As a fan of the book, I was quite shocked when they showed the book ending, only to rewind and give some overly happy ending. I really couldn't believe after I saw that Winslow was a screenwriter. Some have mentioned that Stone did this to get political with the corrupt DEA and all that stuff and I guess that's slightly understandable, but I didn't think it fit with the rest of the film. It really took me out of the entire experience. I liked the treatment of the DEA agent in the novel much better, with his suicide when he realizes how much he has messed up. But Stone had to keep him alive just so he could say, "Look at your corrupt government!" I know Stone is political, but enough statements about corrupt governments can be, and are, made within the regular plot. I only slightly forgive it because I didn't mind seeing the three leads survive, because I liked them. But it seemed better for them to die together at the end rather than go to Indonesia and shop at the farmer's market.