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If you pitched Savages, you could safely call it Point Break meets Blow, but hesitating, and using a tone that implies you chose to be nice rather than give an adept description. Oliver Stone said he wanted to make a romantic violent thriller set in sunshine, in the vein of a sexy Scarface. Had he made it around the same time as De Palma’s classic, Savages might have become a great film of that era, instead of a haphazard film of this one. Something this glitzy shouldn’t feel so stale.
I’m unsure why I feel like a cinematic heretic whenever I talk down on Oliver Stone’s work, because his filmography is filled with some of the most questionable choices in any director’s resume. Yet his craftsmanship and ambition haven’t lost any potential in 30 years of Hollywood, so each project can be viewed from a clean slate. You don’t need to know his other work to realize Savages is a loud and unrealistic piece of cinematic lard.
Throughout the film’s entire running time, incredulous questions are formed, but it takes until the credits are rolling to fully comprehend what was seen, and longer to decide whether there was enough fun amidst the ridiculousness to save the film from an overly critical demise. The novel it was adapted from, written by co-screenwriter Dan Winslow, was as impactful for its particular uses of uncomplicated prose and sharp dialogue as it was for the “independent vs. corporate” take on drug wars and cartel domination. As is often the case, the joy of any book lies in trusting one’s own imagination rather than Oliver Stone to dictate the story’s imagery.
The “romantic” heart of the film is the three-way love affair between the warmonger Chon (Taylor Kitsch), his lifelong Earth monger friend Ben (Aaron Johnson), and the blonde monger O (Blake Lively). Chon is the damaged veteran, quick to answer questions with actions over words. Sensitive and charitable Ben prefers to use his brains to avoid escalating problems. O is the sexed up sandwich meat whose narration serves as useless exposition. The guys both share O without making it overly slutty, but you know the guys love each other more than they love her. It’s that kind of thing.
Using top quality marijuana seeds Chon brought back from Iraq, he and Ben create an enterprise for themselves by growing and selling some of the highest quality weed on the planet. Their operation is comfortable, but their corrupt DEA agent buddy Dennis alerts them to members of the Mexican cartel wanting to talk. The cartel members we concern ourselves with are the panther-like leader Elena (Salma Hayek), middleman Alex (Demián Bichir), and hitman/enforcer Lado, played with the always enjoyable lunacy of Benicio Del Toro. Not interested in doing business with such a violent powerhouse, Chon and Ben decline, and their lives are thrown into turmoil when O is held hostage.
From then on, the film is devoid of any serious tension. It’d be one thing if Chon and Ben were just Ben and some other weak-willed person, but Chon’s character brings with him absolute plot-driven vengeance, as well as the military background, which allows him to draft selfless war buddies in to help with ludicrously dangerous tasks. They also utilize a team of computer geeks, including Joel David Moore and Emile Hirsch, to do most of the non-gun related business. As a hostage, O is actually treated quite well, and though Lado is the wild card with unpredictable intentions, Elena spends the movie focused on forging a more loving relationship with her daughter, even allowing a kinship with O to form. Millions of dollars change hands, and many lives are lost, all because a Mexican fucking drug cartel thinks that two pot farmers have an enviable drug network. Sure, it’s centered in reality, but weed is the least lucrative drug for gangs to mess with, and it’s in a state where the shit is fairly legal anyway.
Though I have little faith in Lively’s acting skills, everyone else in the film is completely believable, and I buy Kitsch and Johnson as best friend stoners. There are enough cartoonish hijinks to chew on. Despite the top-quality weed constantly being smoked, neither actor ever looks like they’re high. And if a drug film can’t even get that right, then what luck does the rest of it have?
Combine lush locations with frenetic camerawork, and the result is a fine looking Blu-ray release that allows Stone’s visuals to look their prettiest. And he does pull out all stops on said camerawork, with no angle, color filter, or film stock going unused. It’s a dialogue-heavy film, so some of it gets lost in the music and action, but mostly, it sounds great. There are two cuts of the film, and despite 11 minutes of cut scenes in one, they felt equally long.
The two commentaries feature Stone talking in the first, and Winslow and co-writer Shane Salerno, producers Eric Kopeloff and Moritz Borman, and production designer Tomas Voth make up the second. Both are extremely informative for different reasons, because regardless of content quality, there is definitely a lot to talk about. Stone’s attention to realistic detail is second to none.
“Stone Cold Savages” is a making-of doc separated into five parts. The story origins, casting, and editing features worked fine, but the real run was in the two covering the locations and all the fake weed plants used in the film. Much discussion is had about these plants, and the genius indoor underground pool growing operation the set designer set up. It even fooled some of the crew.
Finally, there are nine deleted scenes to skip or flip through. Most just extend what’s already there, or offer redundant dialogue. Worth a viewing but not the memory of that viewing, Savages is mostly just empty-calories, much like the popcorn it demands to share your time with.
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