Saturday, July 7, 2012

In Theaters: SAVAGES (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Oliver Stone.  Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone.  Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Demian Bichir, Emile Hirsch, Shea Whigham, Sandra Echeverria, Joel David Moore, Amber Dixon.  (R, 130 mins)

There's some inspired flashes of the Oliver Stone of old throughout SAVAGES, and while it's not on the level of his finest work, it's his most entertaining film in years.  Doing away with the maudlin, Hallmark sentimentality of WORLD TRADE CENTER, the SNL-level caricatures of W, and the perfunctory clock-punching of the awful WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, Stone may not be hitting the heights of PLATOON or JFK with SAVAGES, but he at least brings his A-game.  Pre-release buzz seemed to indicate that he was back in NATURAL BORN KILLERS territory, but SAVAGES is perhaps most reminiscent of his neglected 1997 film U-TURN, at least in terms of tone and style. U-TURN is usually dismissed as minor Stone, but it's one of his most entertaining films, and SAVAGES has that same loose, freewheeling, occasionally dark-humored, anything-goes feel to it and between the nonstop profanity, sadistic villains, splattered brains, decapitations, torture scenes with dangling eyeballs, and a few fairly graphic sex scenes, it's a hard-R of the highest order.

Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are two Laguna Beach pot entrepreneurs who have built a reputable independent business selling product with the highest THC levels in SoCal.  They've been friends since high school and share everything, including Ophelia, or O (Blake Lively), an airheaded beach bunny who lives with and loves both of them (as O puts it in her likely intentionally spacy narration, "Chon fucks...Ben makes love" and the two of them "make one complete man").  Their paradise is invaded by a Mexican drug cartel that wants to take them on as partners.  Already looking to get out of the business, Chon and Ben turn them down, which leads to cartel head Elena (a ferocious Salma Hayek) sending her goons, led by the ruthless, repugnant Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap O.  Battle-hardened (and scarred) Iraq War vet Chon convinces the laid-back, pacifist do-gooder Ben (who builds water systems in third world countries and donates laptops to impoverished African children) to put his Buddhist ideals aside (Chon: "Who cares what some fat Jap thinks?"  Ben: "Actually, he's a fat Indian") and head in to battle with the cartel to rescue O, leading to some over-the-top, Peckinpah levels of bloodbathing.  Complicating matters are shifting loyalties in Elena's organization as well as the involvement of the duplicitous Dennis (John Travolta), a corrupt DEA agent with a cancer-stricken wife and a stake in both sides of the conflict.

Chon (Taylor Kitsch), O (Blake Lively), and
Ben (Aaron Johnson) before all hell breaks loose.
Based on a novel by Don Winslow (who co-wrote the script with Stone and Shane Salerno), SAVAGES isn't a message film for Stone, which may explain why it succeeds.  Tackling subjects as monumental as 9/11, the Bush White House, and the stock market in recent years, and for the most part, botching them (W was alright, though it doesn't really hold up that well on a repeat viewing), it's nice to see Stone being able to just make a good movie and not succumb to the pressure of the expectations of being "Oliver Stone."  In other words, SAVAGES isn't TRAFFIC, and it isn't trying to be.  

Salma Hayek as the ruthless cartel boss Elena

Benicio Del Toro as the depraved henchman Lado

John Travolta as corrupt DEA agent Dennis, with Kitsch.

The three leads acquit themselves well (and good for JOHN CARTER and BATTLESHIP star Kitsch, who's not having the best year), and I kept imagining Lively's O as a ten-years-younger version of Bridget Fonda's Melanie in JACKIE BROWN (1997).  But it's the veteran actors who steal the show from the kids.  Hayek and Travolta (who previously appeared together in the barely-released 2006 thriller LONELY HEARTS) have their best roles in years, with the script providing some interesting bits of characterization (Dennis' terminally-ill wife, and Elena's concern over her fractured relationship with her grown daughter) that give the actors some space to work and more to do beyond being stock cardboard villains.  And Del Toro is very memorable as one of the most repulsive bad guys to ooze down the pike in some time (it's a quick action on Del Toro's part, but watch for the almost unspeakably vile act he commits while forcing a young cohort to shoot a woman in the head). Also with recent Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir (A BETTER LIFE) as a top cartel representative, and Emile Hirsch as Chon and Ben's money launderer (why is the INTO THE WILD and MILK star doing bad horror movies like THE DARKEST HOUR and taking on a buried-in-the-credits role here that barely qualifies as "sidekick"?  Four years ago, he would've been starring in this; was SPEED RACER that much of a career-killer for him?).  The biggest problem with the film is that Stone can't seem to settle on an ending, so he provides two, and it's almost like he's saying "Here's the ending I want, and I'll just throw in the ending they'll make me use."  It's a gimmicky finale that doesn't really work, but for the most part, SAVAGES is a brutal, blood-soaked, and unrepentantly scuzzy thriller that finds a great filmmaker not hitting his prior heights of glory, but checking his agendas at the door and appearing to be enjoying his work for the first time in a while.

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