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-]