Gaudy, Gory “Savages” Brings Tension, Signifies Nothing

Oliver Stone’s “Savages” is a 10,000 volt kneejerk reaction to the static electricity that was “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Violently rejecting the cable-readiness of his most recent work, Stone has gone out of his way to re-embrace the kinetic flamboyance and hyperactive cynicism of his past. On a surface level, it’s good to see Oliver Stone being Oliver Stone again, and the film registers as an occasionally suspenseful and intermittently well-acted drug trade thriller. However, it’s failure to function as the cinematic tone poem it aspires to be is often taxing on its audience (see: an avalanche of Shakespeare references). In this race run by unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things, there’s nary a moment of reflection or an opening for anyone to breathe. The surplus of onscreen movement doesn’t compensate for the lack of development (it’s essentially a one-act film) and one truly awful performance.

Aaron Johnson (Ben) and Taylor Kitsch (Chon) play a couple of successful but naïve pot growers in southern California, and their beautiful girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), wanders about as the center of their universe. In a lesser film, this bizarre love triangle might stumble out of the gate, but the actors and screenwriters (Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Stone) totally commit to it. Its initial strangeness eventually blends into the world of the film and fades away. The plot demands it.

A Mexican drug cartel – led by a ferocious businesswoman, Elena (Salma Hayek), and her right hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) – intends to partner with Ben and Chon, regardless of their wishes. Their dope is among the most potent in the world and it’s highly coveted by many in the drug trade. When Ben and Chon rebuff the cartel’s offer, the response is swift and aggressive, and the violence only escalates through the course of the film. John Travolta plays a crooked DEA Agent playing every possible angle, and he brings a surprising vulnerability to a role that’s written pretty thinly.

The performances of the three leads range from respectable to disastrous. Aaron Johnson’s Ben is the only one with any kind of arc. His green-behind-the-ears stoner repeatedly learns the hardest of lessons in the harshest of light, and Johnson expertly underplays it. His facial expressions never fail to convey his growing weariness. Taylor Kitsch, as an ex-military man and self-ordained tough guy, spends most of the film glaring and barking orders at his partner and employees. It is uninspired work, but the character was obviously drawn one-dimensionally on the page. Chon is always looking for a gunfight, and combined with Ben’s naivety, partially explains the duo’s relentless stupidity.

As bland as Kitsch’s work is, Blake Lively gives one of the worst performances of the year. Her breathy narration bogs down the first and last 30 minutes of the film and she’s outclassed and outgunned in every department by Del Toro, Travolta, and Hayek. Poor line readings often go hand in hand with badly written dialogue, but when the stale narration stops and Lively’s character and her stilted line deliveries are pushed into the background of the film, things immediately improve. It’s not a coincidence. It’s just a relief.

Oliver Stone’s work can be difficult to appraise because Oliver Stone himself is impossible to figure out. It’s not clear what he’s trying to say with “Savages,” if anything, or if he’s content with its mere existence as a big, sloppy kiss to pulpy, gaudy cinema. He doesn’t allow Del Toro off his leash nearly enough for the latter, but the film’s haziness (literally and metaphorically) suggests that Stone is in on the joke. There’s no heft to the material – only mindless violence – and Blake Lively is absolutely dreadful, but there’s some genuine tension and excitement at times, particularly during the movie’s midsection. If Stone can use “Savages” as a springboard to get back to bigger and loftier things, its reputation might grow in the years to come. Is this his return to form? Not quite. Not yet.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriter: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bichir
MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)