By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Akin to the project shooting itself in the foot, the studio keeps braying the fact that Savages is an adaptation of the novel that landed on the New York Times’ list of Top Ten Books of 2010. That’s all well and good, but can screenwriter Don Winslow (credited with Shane Salerno & Oliver Stone) measure up to novelist Don Winslow?
It seems that he can’t, his particular brand of crackling wit getting lost somewhere between the page and the screen. Take, for example, when Blake Lively’s Ophelia – or O for short – denotes in a voiceover the difference between her and her lover’s sexual ecstasies: “I have orgasms. He has wargasms.” Or, as described in the New York Times’ book review by Janet Maslin, “The Winslow effect is to fuse the grave and the playful, the body blow and the joke, the nightmare and the pipe dream. It’s flippant and dead serious simultaneously.” As intoned by Ms. Lively, the sardonic words take themselves much too seriously, and she comes off as borderline pretentious. Or just plain dumb. Perhaps if the line had been delivered with some brio, or humor, the effect may have been different.
But like the decapitations performed by a bloodthirsty Mexican cartel at the start of the film … I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ben and Chon not only share a highly lucrative marijuana production and distribution company, but a girlfriend as well. When Ben (Aaron Johnson, star of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy) went to college, he double-majored in botany and business. Which was the perfect combination for jumpstarting his indie Laguna Beach company, co-owned by Chon (Taylor Kitsch, star of Battleship and John Carter). Ben is the brains and the charitable heart of the organization while Chon – who did two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan – provides the needed muscle. Along with their ladylove O, who beds them both, they are a happy, frolicsome trio living the good life high atop a hill overlooking a sun-washed, Southern California beach.
However, everything changes when the Baja Cartel, run by Salma Hayek’s Elena, forces Ben and Chon to merge with them — or else. The guys try to leave town with O, ditching their weed, deleting all their customers’ records … but when the Cartel kidnaps O, stealing away is no longer an option. As the two factions fight each other, the ploys grow more desperate and extreme, helped along by such baddies as DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), head cartel henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and smooth-talking attorney Alex (Demián Bichir). Which side deserves the term “savages” more? It turns out it’s a toss-up, a concept that director Oliver Stone can’t help but hammer throughout.
If it’s any indication of the film’s disjointed (no pun intended) end result, Emile Hirsch’s role of the hacker/computer wizard/money man Spin is greatly reduced. Which is a problem, since he comes up with an elaborate idea to divest Elena of her properties … but once described, we never hear about that plot point again. More telling, Uma Thurman as O’s mother Paqu (“Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe” as she’s called by O), was edited out completely. And Blake Lively winds up doing a lengthy opening voiceover that is oddly anti-cinematic, far more understandable from a novice filmmaker than the veteran Oliver Stone.
Further, the characters’ actions don’t always jive with their personas. Such as the guys allowing O to go on a shopping spree at a public mall, even though they’ve got less than 24 hours to flee the country. Does she really need a dozen more upscale items of clothes and accessories if they’re flying off to the wilds of Indonesia? And aren’t Ben and Chon putting her in grave danger by letting her leave the house? Cartel boss Elena goes to great lengths to hide her voice and identity when she communicates with the trio onscreen … until she doesn’t.
While the two male leads are intriguing, adeptly conveying a compelling relationship, other principals falter. Del Toro’s sadistic villain all but rolls his mustache – wait, in one scene, he does. Lively belies her own last name, giving a performance that is the exact opposite. It’s puzzling as to why the two men would put their lives on the line for this lightly-drawn lightweight. Hirsch may have contributed a fun character, but we’ll never know.
Other than a few funny/macabre scenes with the over-the-top Travolta, the movie is often extraordinarily violent, but not particularly engaging. And the third act is nothing short of an all-out mess. Though it may not be fair to compare a film to a cable TV series, Stone gives us the messy drug scenarios akin to Weeds, without the humor; and the grit and brutality akin to Breaking Bad, without the complexity.
Unless you’re an Oliver Stone completist, Savages, while definitely savage, is far from a must-see.
Rating on a scale of 5 pots calling the kettle stoned: 2.5
Release date: July 6, 2012
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Screenplay by: Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone
Based on the novel by: Don Winslow
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Demian Bichir, Emile Hirsch
Running Time: 129 minutes