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There were many times while watching Oliver Stone’s Savages that I thought to myself, “Okay, that was kind of cool. Maybe things will pick up from here.” I was perpetually disappointed. From the outside the film looked like a return to the Stone of old, the filmmaker that brought us intense, powerful movies like Natural Born Killers, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July. Instead what he has delivered is overlong, filled with empty characters and bad performances, and an ending that may actually lead audiences to throw things at the screen.
An hour into Savages, I looked at my watch and discovered something incredible: the movie was still stuck in the first act. The film begins with some truly terrible voice over from Blake Lively who plays a character named O. This wannabe-ingenue is in love with two pot growers named Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who are beginning to have trouble with the Mexican cartels who want a piece of their action. When the two friends refuse, the cartel, headed by a woman named Elena (Salma Hayek), decides that the best course of action is to kidnap O. Whereas most stories would have this all explained within the first 20 minutes or maybe the first half-hour, it takes Stone an hour to get the intro out. Top to bottom the movie feels bloated and boring to the point that the audience is left tapping their foot waiting for the next plot movement to surface.
Every character in Stone’s new movie is characterless. Elena has the potential of being an interesting figure, as she didn’t rise to the top of the cartel but instead inherited it, but the character is only written to extremes, either trying her very best to be a brutal drug lord and other times crying about her daughter (Sandra Echeverría). Benicio del Toro's character Lado, one of Elena's enforcers, has the opposite problem. You want to see Del Toro do a bit of scenery chewing and act evil on a primal level, but Lado simply meanders from scene to scene. John Travolta plays a DEA agent who plays both sides, but doesn’t so much add to the plot as he does add to the two hour and eleven minute runtime. To their credit, Ben and Chon are interesting characters and Johnson and Kitsch play them well, but the environment in which they are placed doesn’t suit their development. While there are interesting questions to be asked about how two best pals can share one woman and how their opposing personalities – one is a Buddhist and the other is an ex-solider – results in a friendship, it’s all lost by giving them the ordinary revenge plotline to fit into.
It’s hard to tell why O was put in the position of being the story’s narrator, and that question only gets louder as you watch Lively’s performance. We get that her character is meant to be laid back, but that’s no excuse for every line she has to be said completely flat. Even when she’s been in captivity for days Lively never sounds panicked or worried, and generally comes across as spoiled. Most of her narration is pointless – she provides biographies for characters who only appear in one scene – and actually winds up being a distraction.
And then there’s the ending that I still have a hard time believing was made by not only a multiple Academy Award winning director, but by someone who has any concept of storytelling. Will I will not reveal exactly what occurs – it’s not my job to ruin the movie-going experience – it is the equivalent of Stone raising a middle finger to the audience and saying. “Screw it, I’m going to take any potential this movie had and flush it down the toilet.” As the travesty unfolded I took a look around the theater and saw many people holding their arms out in befuddlement, heard others laughing, and witnessed others turning to their neighbors and whispering, “Seriously?” It deserves to haunt the rest of Stone’s career.
Even the device driving Savages doesn’t make sense. Marijuana is the drug that created Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar and Jay and Silent Bob, not the drug that’s going to lead to people being whipped until their eyes fall out of their socket (an all too real example from this film). In the making of this movie Stone had his head completely on backwards and the result is an absolute mess that will not only lead you to leaving the theater disappointed, but possibly even furious.