by Daniel Rester
Dexterous director Oliver Stone, who seems to live on controversial material, returns to his dark and bloody film-making style with Savages — based on the novel by Don Winslow (who shares screenplay credit with Stone and Shane Salerno). Stone has covered many topics over the years as a filmmaker, and has used various techniques to capture each one. Savages finds him back in the vein of something like Natural Born Killers rather than, say, JFK or World Trade Center.
The film tells the story of a young beauty named Ophelia (Blake Lively), or “O,” and her two lovers, who knowingly share her between them—as she is perfectly content with it. The two, Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch), grow the finest cannabis in California and make plenty off of their dealings. Ben is a peace-loving type with much knowledge, while Chon is an ex-soldier who is the muscle behind the operation.
After Ben and Chon refuse to join forces with a Mexican drug cartel, the group kidnaps “O.” This sends Ben and Chon on a mission to save their girlfriend, with Chon pushing Ben to use any means necessary to rescue her. Along the way they get support from a dirty DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta) and a computer-savvy trickster named Spin (Emile Hirsch). However, the cartel’s fiery leader, Elena (Salma Hayek), has a sick-minded hit man named Lado (Benicio Del Toro) on her side in order to keep things even.
Savages provides no major insight into the drug rings of California and Mexico and its storytelling is mostly straightforward script wise. The characters are also difficult to relate to and care about. As for the dialogue, it is hit and miss. And the script takes a final faulty turn towards the end, which is actually more like two endings (with the first far more satisfying).
Despite this mostly unrewarding script, Savages is saved by Stone’s direction and some of the cast. Stone really knows how to deliver lurid scenes, but he also knows how to give them substance and a darkly realistic approach (if occasionally over-the-top). His style here is very attention-getting, with interesting scene setups and terrific uses of location. All of this is much-aided by the cinematography by Dan Mindel and editing by Joe Hutshing; the camera angles, use of colors, and dynamic editing are all first-rate.
The younger cast members here do an okay job, but they mostly play their characters broadly. Lively has some presence, but when the film calls on her to narrate it seems to fumble a bit (due to a mix of the dialogue and her delivery). Kitsch has his moments as well, but he is mostly dull and lacks range. Also, Hirsch has a small part and his talent is mostly wasted. Most effective of the young cast members is Johnson, who has a certain likeability about him. He also has the advantage on his side of playing the most relatable of all of the low-lives (not wanting to give in to all of the violence and negativity in his surroundings).
Much stronger here is the supporting cast, which consists of three older actors on the top of their game. Travolta brings a lot of energy and Travolta-isms to his character, and actually makes for a likeable scumbag. Del Toro is alternately terrifying and hilarious as Lado and steals every single scene he is in. He and Travolta also have a dialogue exchange in what is arguably the best scene in the film, due mostly to the fact that these actors are so great to watch play off of each other. In the end, though, Hayek comes off as the best. Her intense and excessive turn as Elena is immensely entertaining—giving a textbook lesson on how to chew scenery without becoming annoying.
Despite the few screenplay flaws (namely the choice in ending) and the here-and-there performances by the younger cast members, Savages is still entertaining. But be warned that the film is brutal and graphic, with Stone not withholding for a second in his depiction of sex and violence (including a shot of an eye hanging out). But with the director’s skill and the terrific supporting cast, Savages is a wild good time for adult viewers – if not as great as it could have been.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.