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Review: Oliver Stone's Hard-Boiled Crime Saga 'Savages' A Muddled & Messy Disappointment

Reviews
by Benjamin Wright
July 3, 2012 1:04 PM
35 Comments
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It’s always unfortunate to watch a filmmaker slip further away from his better work with age – but even more so when it’s one who exhibited the sort of storytelling craft that could both frustrate and engage his audience all at once. Director Oliver Stone has always been one to challenge his viewers. From his days of illustrating with his pen the brutal confines of a Turkish prison in “Midnight Express” to the conspiracy minded reels of “JFK,” Stone has honed an ability to tell seemingly documentary ready material in a more compelling cinematic narrative – treating fiction like reality (and occasionally blurring the line between the two). That all began to slip even in the eyes of some of Stone’s most adamant defenders in the early 2000s, where after the semi-respectable “Any Given Sunday,” Stone sat in the director’s chair for “World Trade Center,” and “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” diving far deeper into schmaltzy Hollywood excess than Tony Montana ever could have with mounds of cocaine in the Stone-scripted “Scarface."

But now we are saddled with a whole different side of the brain of the controversial auteur with the crime saga “Savages.” Following two young marijuana entrepreneurs named Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), who set up shop in sunny Laguna Beach, California -- with a coastline that provides the postcard-ready backdrop for the film’s opening titles to scroll across the screen -- “Savages” starts off with the promise from ethereal California beauty Ophelia (Blake Lively), the shared lover of best friends Chon and Ben. She says, just because she’s narrating the film, doesn’t mean she’ll make it to the end. It’s the sort of opening meant to put an audience on the edge of their seats – allowing them to think that all bets are off and the world of “Savages” is one of high stakes. That’s what we’re supposed to believe anyway, but the truth is that as the film moves on through its poorly paced 2-hour running time, the stakes wear increasingly thin and her obnoxious, on-the-noise voice-over is the very type they teach in film classes to avoid at all costs when writing a screenplay.

Lively is introduced as the character the audience is supposed to gravitate towards – the innocent and somewhat clueless blonde with mommy issues – to help navigate us through this tortured world of progressive, “Going Green”-minded pot suppliers Ben and Iraq War vet Chon. Attempting to articulate the two disparate natures of her lovers, Ophelia tells us that when Ben makes love to her, she has orgasms, but when Chon ravages her body she has “wargasms.” Yes, that is an actual line of voice-over dialogue in the film. When Ophelia (or “O” as she likes to be called) is kidnapped by a powerful Mexican drug cartel led by the hot-headed but motherly Elena (Salma Hayek) following a botched attempt at uniting her ailing drug empire with Ben and Chon’s independent outfit, things head downhill for both the characters and the film. Much talk of the drug business discussed in the opening 30 to 40 minutes of “Savages” fails to hold any weight, as both Ben and Chon are made out to be miracle workers by O, growing the very herb that aids the dying and helps provide Ben with the financial backing to follow his philanthropic endeavors in third world countries. But the clash between the violent reality of the current drug trade with O’s depiction of their work is stark. Perhaps this is Stone’s satirical side kicking in, showing that O’s infatuation with her shared lovers makes her blind to the realities of the drug business, but other than the fact that she’s a mostly motherless trust fund kid – not much is given to help draw us into the character or her particular plight.

Stone seems to be making a rather sweeping indictment of the drug business as a whole, which is littered with corrupt cops, lawyers, Mexican gangsters, and everyday kids like Ben and Chon – but the truth is he never stays focused on any critique for long. If the attempt was to capture the current climate of the war on drugs – it isn’t a very convincing one – but if it’s simply to use the very real issue as a backdrop for gangster posturing and gratuitous scenes of gutless killing and torture, Stone has accomplished just that. It’s as if he popped in 2008’s “Gommorah” to have an idea for the film’s scope, maybe “Hostel” for a particular dingy and grotesque torture scene in a basement eerily reminiscent of Eli Roth’s Slovakian hideaway, and just let it roll.

You will certainly read that this is Stone’s return to form to his more wild and freewheeling tendencies – and that’s true to mild extent -- but those who are looking for the sort of cocaine-addled “Natural Born Killers” meets Tony Scott-style action picture that the film’s trailer suggests should look elsewhere; the violence here is short and conversation laden. The filmmaker knows when to play things quietly – like seemingly casual conversations between Elena’s right hand madman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and his fellow “business” partners – just before they ultimately erupt into a Quentin Tarantino-esque spray of bloodshed and insanity. It becomes increasingly clear as the reels roll on that Stone – not unlike O – is far more infatuated with the fantastical love affair of the film’s narrative. Somewhere here, there lies the skeleton of Don Winslow’s novel on which the film was based – but now it’s buried under unappealing, brief sex scenes and attempts at making Ben and Chon’s relationship with the wispy O seem more than just a couple of rowdy 20-somethings having a little bit of frisky fun with an attractive female.

There’s a glossy, nostalgic sheen that covers most of the film, even the twist ending that unfortunately shoehorns the same sort of abrasive sentimentality found in “World Trade Center” into the film’s closing moments. The picture opens and concludes on the sun-soaked, postcard-ready shores of Laguna, with Yuna’s cover of The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun,” proving the film’s music supervisor may have had more fun doing his job than anyone else. It just feels as if this is the film that has Stone reaching back to the days of “Salvador,” “Platoon,” or even “Wall Street,” attempting to insightfully tap into a specific time and place with very intriguing people, only what results isn’t the work of the skilled master filmmaker we know him to be – but rather someone attempting to manipulate their audience rather than earn each moment.

As a gratuitous romp, "Savages" is a sparsely enjoyable one, where the most pleasure is derived from the sometimes scenery chewing performances scattered throughout the film. While box-office bomb poster boy Taylor Kitsch (“Battleship,” “John Carter”) certainly proves to be a lot more useful than he has as the void in the larger films he’s starred in this year, along with Lively and Johnson, he is swallowed up in the shallow love affair Stone continually attempts to pound away at. It’s John Travolta as federal agent Dennis and Benicio Del Toro as the unhinged Lado, in supporting roles, that give the film its much-needed spark, keeping the audience nervously laughing along with both of these characters as the tension of Travolta's seemingly set-in-stone fate hangs over the film. One particular tête-à-tête scene between these two finds the correct balance between tension and making the film’s dialogue really crackle, though unfortunately it’s one that doesn’t last very long. Then again, talent like Emile Hirsch, Demián Bichir, and an army of random, practically faceless military vet friends of Chon are dispensed at will throughout the film, making you wonder why they bothered to show up anyway.

A saving grace is certainly the film’s look, courtesy of Tony Scott and J.J. Abrams regular cinematographer Daniel Mindel (who oddly enough lensed the similarly frustrating Scott film “Domino”) who allows the austere beauty of the gold coast to shine through the film’s lens, as well as showcasing and lending a sense of atmosphere to the surroundings during moments of both intimacy and outrageous fury. It’s proof that the man behind major studio tentpoles like “Star Trek” and “John Carter” has quite a talented and nuanced eye – putting the high color saturation and showy lighting that he experimented with so feverishly with in films like “Domino” and “Enemy of the State” to more effective and low-key use.

Ultimately, those expecting the loud action thriller that the trailer has long promised will be gravely disappointed. “Savages” is at times a long-winded crime picture that attempts to appeal to the thinking man, but really just sits there on the screen with little weight – emotional, dramatic, or otherwise – to move it about. It’s disappointing to be sure, especially when certain instances in the film will make you hold out hope that it’s all going to turn around, but you’re left with that unfulfilled sense of anticipation. Yes, there’s violence. Yes, there’s a tawdry and uninteresting “love triangle” if you will, but unfortunately the rewards in Stone’s latest are too few to really offer much of a recommendation. It’s admirable that a studio like Universal would allow Stone to take a slow-burn crime thriller like “Savages” and allow it to simmer while all the summer blockbusters try to stoke bigger flames -- we just wish it had amounted to something more than a muddled mess in the end. [C-]

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35 Comments

  • Anna | April 5, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    seriously, I wasted my Friday evening on this ludicrous Tarantino-dannyboyle wannabe bland laugh of a film. I should've wacthed some series instead

  • Tess Tickles | July 11, 2012 11:03 PMReply

    Accoeding to Matthew Dowd, Oliver Stone is CIA!
    http://www.matthewdowd.com

  • matthewdowd | October 10, 2012 6:33 PM

    Sorry "D" I proudly use my name, no hiding behind an initial.

  • d | July 12, 2012 12:34 AM

    Yeah, just keep spamming, Matthew -- er, I mean, "Tess Tickles."

  • Anna | July 11, 2012 1:21 AMReply

    So, is this means the end of Taylor Kitsch's leading actor career?... Maybe Savages isn't "his film", but the reviews of his performances aren't exactly positives and the prospectus of the film is falling...

    For me, I hope so. Yes, maybe I sound rude, but I'm gonna pay for watch a film and I don't want a himbo as a lead actor. He's hot, but I think he belongs in the modeling scene and not Hollywood... Also, this is another advice for you Brooklin Decker-

    P.D. Taylor Kitsch and Hayden Christensen -Big fat himbos- are from British Columbia

  • HA! | July 10, 2012 9:20 PMReply

    Gotta give credit to The Playlist for being the first one to call this movie as they saw it. So many people trying to defend it online. What a pile of trash! Ben deserves a raise...or a visit from Blake Lively ;)

  • oh well | July 6, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    It's too bad this movie is now certified as terrible.

  • MDL | July 6, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    It's liked by Ebert, AO Scott, Corliss, Morgenstern, Gleiberman, McCarthy, O'Herir and Edelstein. And one critic who gives it a B- is shown as rotten [which is odd]. So in reality the critics don't hate it. It's mixed, which means we don't have a manufactured consensus. That's one reason to sort of recommend it. Note that Turan writes: "You might not think that a motion picture called "Savages" could be too violent, too savage, but you would be wrong." That kind of review could actually make more people want to see it.

  • MDL Love everything | July 6, 2012 4:52 PM

    Love that you're trying to manufacture your own kind of consent.

  • Kevin | July 6, 2012 4:37 PM

    "Savages" isn't too violent or too savage, it's just too stupid.

  • Jitney Tears | July 5, 2012 8:58 PMReply

    The issue here is that we're suppose to believe Blake Lively can act, Taylor Kitsch has fought in more than one war, and John Travolta's hairline is not some sort of optical illusion.

  • Woop | July 5, 2012 3:49 PMReply

    Thank you, Ben. I just told similar things to my co-workers after an early screening. It was quite awful. Lively is a dead fish on this film, I wonder if Jennifer Lawrence would have done a better job at making us care about O. Sorry but am amazed at some of the critic's calling this a return to form. Don't waste your money people, the trailer is the only good part.

  • Kevin | July 5, 2012 12:27 PMReply

    This movie is a goddamn trainwreck of terrible. One of the worst of the year.

  • Tanya | July 4, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    It's amazing how much Channing Tatum can catch every break but how Taylor Kitsch can't catch a single one.

  • Oogle Monster | July 5, 2012 12:13 PM

    Pretty sure Channing Tatum had not one, but TWO hit movies and Haywire had the critics (maybe not the BO) on his side. Tatum isn't an innately talented actor, but he's got charisma and screen presence and is smart to pick the right projects. Kitsch hasn't had a single hit post-FNL (which wasn't much of a hit to begin with although a critics favorite which was his saving grace). Dude needs new representation and strategy ASAP. Also, after seeing Savages, the fact that THESE three leads were chosen and suppose to make us believe they love each other equally is B.S. There is zero chemistry between Box Office Bomb 2012, Aaron Johnson, and Mumbles McGee.

  • Matthew Dowd | July 3, 2012 10:41 PMReply

    Matthew Dowd says: Oliver Stone is CIA.
    https://twitter.com/#!/matthewdowd

  • ugh | July 3, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    ugh. shit movie. The voice-over is fucking horrible. The ending is essentially, "it was only a dream."

  • Kyle | July 3, 2012 4:55 PMReply

    That film was bloody rubbish! Glad one critic looked past it being from stone and gave it what it deserved. The only parts that tickled my fancy were Benecio and Travolta. Well done Benjamin keep being honest. I bloody hate these cookie cutter critics.

  • Anonymouse | July 3, 2012 3:25 PMReply

    what exactly is an "one-the-noise voice-over?"

  • Mr Anonymous | July 3, 2012 2:12 PMReply

    Well it does have to be said other sites have given the movie positive reviews and liked it. And i mean at least a handful or so.

  • PM | July 3, 2012 2:07 PMReply

    Why are guys so mad? It's Benjamin's opinion, no need to attack him for it. You sound like crazy fanboys.

  • Noel | July 3, 2012 2:00 PMReply

    Oh, you're so hipster, playlist. Jesus f-ing christ this review is sad

  • Kyle | July 3, 2012 4:58 PM

    Haha Americans!

  • DG | July 3, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    1) Never trust a reviewer who references so much irrelevant crap in their review. 2) Never trust anyone who calls themselves "the truth."

    Savages is a flawed yet entertaining film adaptation of Don Winlsow's stellar work of pulpy fiction.

  • AS | July 3, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    All of the other reviews I've read have been VERY positive so I'll take this with a grain of salt. Some people are just clearly biased against Oliver Stone.

  • Ana | July 7, 2012 12:44 PM

    Loved NBK, big Stone fan....but Savages is a snoozefest. Bad casting and bad acting (for the main characters), boring dialogue and a poorly written script make for a very long boring experience. You keep waiting for something to happen...and it never does. It isn't violent,It isn't smart, it isn't sexy, it isn't...ANYTHING! Seriously, my 10 year old dyslexic nephew could write a better script. I will say that Hayek, Travolta and del Toro were good. But there's the problem. The aging Hayek hAs more sex appeal and grace than the supposed sex pot 'O', Travolta brings more heat than the war hardened Chon and del Toro has way more going on behind those eyes than the thinker/philosopher Ben. I found the scenes with the supporying actors/roles were the only ones where I wasn't looking at my watch. Seriously, the theatre I was in was vanilla and even they were heckling at the end because it was so bad.

  • GRADES ARE FALLING, YO | July 6, 2012 4:08 PM

    56% and falling. Now certified Rotten. Love how AS found a new kind of excuse though.

  • AS | July 5, 2012 9:57 PM

    Most of the critics who are trashing it also trashed Natural Born Killers... which tells me all I need to know about the substance of their opinion.

  • GRADES ARE FALLING, YO | July 5, 2012 4:27 PM

    63% and falling.

  • MDL | July 5, 2012 2:51 PM

    In response to 'Grades are falling, Yo'
    Actually 67% is close a 'good' rating. It is not a D. The scale is not equivalent to High School grades. The RT scale is derived from a scale of 10, which is derived from a scale of 5 [stars].
    5 = 10 = 100. 4.5 = 9 = 90, 4 = 8 = 80. 3.5 = 7 = 70. 3 = 6 = 60, etc
    So 3 stars = fair to good because 3 stars translates as 60%. And since 67% is closer to 70 than 60 that means overall the consensus is good.

  • Grades are falling, Yo | July 5, 2012 12:19 PM

    Note, Rotten Tomatoes has fallen to 67%. In the United States, that's considered in the D-grade range.

  • OOGLE MONSTER | July 5, 2012 12:08 PM

    Have you only been seeking out positive reviews? B/c Rotten Tomatoes certainly does not reflect all of the other reviews as being "VERY positive"... in fact, it's very split.

  • DG | July 3, 2012 2:04 PM

    I should give the reviewer credit for not even attempting to hide his is anti-Stone bias. I can understand being wary of Stone at this point and I was worried he would screw this up because I love the novel it's based on, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's not as good as the book, of course, but it is good on its own merits.

  • The Truth | July 3, 2012 1:33 PMReply

    This review is generous. This movie sucks ass.

  • Ana | July 7, 2012 12:29 PM

    Bad casting, bad acting, weak script, boring dialogue. Travolta, del Toro, Hayek were great and provided some relief to the snoozefest that was 'O', Chon and Ben. You know it's bad when white middle aged men heckle the movie towards the end.

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