Sunday, July 8, 2012
SAVAGES: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta (129 min.)
Every once in a while, Oliver Stone likes to abandon his political soapbox, or his conspiracy post, to direct a "departure" film. He leaves the preaching and the theorizing behind and takes a shot at a more ambiguously motivated picture. Since his his recent "Stonian" films like World Trade Center, Wall Street 2, and W. have fallen flat, I suspect Stone was ready to direct something less structured. Something like Savages, a drug-fueled action thriller where Stone is given freedom to embellish. That ends up being the problem, Stone's inability to avoid stylistic embellishments and excess where these things are not necessary. Savages has a few things going for it, but most of the film doesn't work. And it may not be all Stone's fault, but then again who is ultimately responsible for a cast that doesn't deliver?
Savages is a crime drama with a cool cover but a hollow core. It is told to us through a narration by O (short for Ophelia), a golden-brown California blond played by Blake Lively. O lives with two men, Chon and Ben, who have cultivated some of the finest pot in the world and turned it into a small fortune. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the botanist, a soft-spoken Buddhist who wants to heal with his pot and in his spare time helps poor kids in Africa. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the muscle, an Iraq War vet who smuggled these primo seeds back from Afghanistan. Chon is scarred mentally and physically by the war, and is prone to acts of violence. If you find it a stretch that Ben and Chone would become friends, now try and buy into the fact these two guys share O. She is their girlfriend, and their true love. I had trouble with this dynamic from the beginning.
The trio lives in peace and harmony in Southern California until the Tijuana cartel gets wind of their operation and wants them to join forces. This cartel is headed up by Elena, a wiry, wicked woman played by Salma Hayek. Her enforcer is Lado, a snarling snake of an assassin played by Benicio Del Toro. Of all the supporting players fighting to chew up scenery with their extravagant characters - including one John Travolta as a crooked DEA agent - it is Del Toro who gets the point. He is fascinating as Lado, sporting a puffy mullet and an epic mustache. The rest of the supporting players, while they are hamming it up, are infinitely more interesting than our three heroes.
Elena's idea to force Chon and Ben to play ball is to kidnap O and keep her in captivity for a year while she makes the boys jump through hoops. They negotiate with one another through skype, showing O in precarious situations and throwing out threats. The boys know O is dead unless they put a plan into motion. That is when the plot devices kick into high gear and the film divulges into an endless series of confusing double crosses and labyrinthine twists. It's difficult to follow at times, or find the proper motivations as the story meanders and Stone gets distracted by shots of moving clouds, the moon, or needless dissolves to black and white photography. That's what Stone does sometimes, and that is what he needs to stop. But at this point in his career, I don't see anyone telling him to tone it down.
Savages can be fun and exciting once in a while, but it is also needlessly violent and oversexed at times. Neither of these are really the biggest issue; the main problem is the central cast of Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively. None of them could carry a film by themselves, and as a trio it doesn't improve. Ben and Chon are the least interesting characters in the entire film and, alas, they are the ones we are supposed to care about. And Lively plays O as a dope for the most part, aloof and dreamy like an uninteresting version of Patricia Arquette's Alabama in True Romance. Selling two men and a woman all in love and lust with each other would be a tough sell with convincing actors, so I really struggled with these three cutouts as the heart of the story. I would have rather spent more time with Lado.