[6 July 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Something has happened to Oliver Stone. Maybe it’s an overdose of conspiracy theories. Perhaps he can no longer compete with the pundits who play his shadow government game better than he ever did. It could be he can’t find financing for his more meaningful works. Or maybe, at age 65, he’s just lost his touch. Whatever the case, the post-modern motion picture Machiavelli, the artist who actually made a difference along the cruel and complex political landscape of these United States, is about to upset Cineplexes with his latest crime thriller, a lame and thoroughly lax adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel, Savages. Flawed at the center and successfully spreading such failure out among the rest of the elements, it’s a legitimate letdown from an artist who’s, apparently, past his prime.
Gentleman drug dealers Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are Southern California’s leading high tech marijuana growers. The former is a budding Buddhist entrepreneur. The latter is a no nonsense ex-Navy SEAL. Selling to dispensaries as well as traffic outside the law, the duo live a dream life on the beach, their mutually shared babe O (Blake Lively) always suntanned and sultry. Of course, the local Mexican cartel can’t stand that Ben and Chon have found a way to make their pot far more potent, and they want to muscle the pair into a deal. When said settlement falls through, female kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek) sends her violent thugs, including the evil Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap their lady love. Instead of convincing them to compromise, however, Ben and Chon get mad, and decide to get even.
With its lack of emotional or even pragmatic investment and a lousy lead performance at its core, Savages doesn’t stand a chance. It may capture a bit of the angry adult audience (they won’t be lining up to see Spidey swing again) that is usually left out of the Summer season mix, but for the most part, said oldsters will be bored by this by the numbers nonsense. We are supposed to see Ben, Chon, and O as naive idealists dealing with a band of cutthroat criminals. We are supposed to champion their laidback lifestyle, menage a trois relationship, and fierce determination to play the dope game on their own terms. We are supposed to hiss at Del Toro, sympathize (to some extent) with Hayek, and wonder aloud why John Travolta is chewing the scenery so (he plays a DEA agent who, naturally, is working both sides of the situation). In the end, we find few rationales.
Yet it’s Ms. Lively and her lack of clear characterization that causes Savages to stumble. She’s our narrator, our rich girl gone to pot seed, tanning her skin while sexing up her male meal tickets. She tries to turn the role into something of a little girl lost, but since Stone can’t stop fashion photographing her, all we get is vague and shallow. There’s no meat to her performance, no moment when we stop seeing O as a THC opportunist and more like a human being we care for…and since we don’t get upset when she’s kidnapped (she gets treated rather well, for the most part), we don’t care if she’s rescued. This makes the next two thirds of Savages almost pointless. As individuals, Ben and Chon are nothing more than a dichotomy - moral/amoral, cautious/contentious. Besides, this is not their story. It’s O’s, and the movie suffers because of who was cast.
But it doesn’t stop there. Without going into detail, the last 40 minutes or so of the plot are rendered meaningless during an unnecessary twist which tells you more about why O as a character is a problem and less about Stone’s aesthetic. Make no mistake, the man can still craft a deliciously hallucinogenic experience. The sun in LA shines so bright it renders everything magic and there are shots of Lively, Kitsch, and Taylor-Johnson that would make Abercrombie and Fitch cry. While he doesn’t drift into the ADD approach that made movies like JFK and Natural Born Killers so electrifying, he does deliver differing visuals to capture the beach and bloodshed of this particular scene. Sadly, it’s for naught.
Still, there are reasons to rejoice, kind of. Travolta does ham it up, turning a thankless role of exposition into the ultimate pudgy weasel, and he has a showdown with Del Toro that’s funny in its fussy, underwritten weirdness. Hayek also brings something new to the role of drug lord, letting her fetching appearance and thick accent do most of the heavy heavy lifting. We never really see her as a threat, just a baddie with a backstory more believable and interesting than anything else in the film. Stone supposedly tweaked the original material, removing much of Winslow’s satiric commentary. What we are left with is a few interesting ideas locked into a familiar story with characters we don’t consider.
This makes Savages a lost cause. Random moments of transparent entertainment do not a two hour plus thriller make. In fact, it’s safe to say that with his latest entry into his already considered oeuvre, Stone himself is MIA. Wall Street 2 was terrible, an apology for an affront he didn’t cause, and previous quality work like W. and World Trade Center gets lost in frequent fanboy kvetching. Granted, for someone who started so strong, who guided Scarface with his words and Platoon, Salvador, and Nixon with his vision, anything may seem like a letdown. In fact, Oliver Stone may be the only filmmaker working today whose past is so powerful that he more than likely can never recapture its glory. Instead, he will be criticized for not staying within his comfort zone, exploring material not made for his brand of in your face filmmaking. Savages has lots of potential. What Stone does with it suggests he’s still aesthetically adrift.