Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Demian Bichir, Emile Hirsch
Directed by Oliver Stone (Wall Street, Born on the 4th of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers)
Opens locally on Friday, July 6th, 2012
The lasting importance of Oliver Stone's latest film Savages is the performance of Benicio Del Toro. He plays Lado, a brutal hit-man for a Mexican drug cartel, and in doing so has created one of the fiercest, most iconic villains since Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in the Coen's No Country For Old Men. It's a performance that stays with you and should be deserving of serious contention come award season. By far my favorite performance so far this year.
As for the film itself, it is a slick and violent film adaptation of a slick and violent novel by Don Winslow (the screenplay credits are shared between Winslow, Stone and Shane Salerno). It has that coolness factor...the kind of gangster/drug cartel movie that lives on in infamy, much like Scarface (whose screenplay was also written by Oliver Stone). For a large portion of the film, it is stylish and sexy. But Stone chickens out at the end, offering up a let-down of an ending that cheapens the appeal of the entire film.
The film is narrated by the sensual O (Blake Lively), which is short for Ophelia. She is in a three-way relationship with Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), who are to pot-dealing what Mark Zuckerberg is to Facebook. They are young pot-smoking entrepreneur's that have built up one of the most potent pot distribution networks in the US.
Wondering what I meant by "three-way relationship?" It is what it sounds like. O is equally in love with both Ben and Chon, and in the first few scenes we learn about each of their personalities by how they make love to O. As she describes it, Ben makes love and the more aggressive Chon, well...she describes it a bit differently. What a bunch of savages.
Their business gets so big that a Mexican drug cartel (led by a villainous Salma Hayek) swoops in to "partner" with them. They send in the vicious Lado (Del Toro) and the more business-minded Alex (Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir who was brilliant in last year's A Better Life) to seal the deal. Lado is shown taking care of business by shooting a man in both knee caps. The cartel threatens to do much worse than take over Ben & Chon's business if they don't go along. What a bunch of savages.
But Ben and Chon aren't just going to roll over. With the help of their money launderer (Emile Hirsch) and their bad-cop contact in the FBI (John Travolta), they devise a plan to keep what is theirs.
Savages is very much an Oliver Stone film, for good or for bad. Even though the story deals with marijuana-dealers, it parallels some real-world stories that I'm sure appealed to Stone. The larger "corporation" trying to squeeze out the small guy, and the small guy fighting back. The concept of how nobody thinks they are in the wrong, from their perspective. There are themes also of loyalty, love and ultimately doing what's right.
But forget all that, Savages kicks some serious ass. There is graphic violence, sharp dialogue and some surprising developments. Did I mention Benicio Del Toro? There is no way the character of Lado was this cool on the page, but Del Toro breathes life into him and in turn fills the movie with tenacity.
Some minor plot discrepancies can be over-looked along the way, but when the end comes the wheels fall off. It wouldn't be right to give anything away, but let's just say that the ending is a rip-off. It is satisfying and extremely not satisfying all at once, although it does make sense and is perhaps the most realistic ending you could imagine. You'll know what I mean.
The main problem with Savages is that there seems to be no consequences for all of the bad behavior we witness over the course of two hours. But Oliver Stone would probably say that such is life. Sometimes, the savages come out on top. It's only in the movies where the bad guys get some sort of comeuppance in the end. But who prevails in a film where there are no good guys?
Savages is no ordinary movie. O tells us in the first couple of minutes, that just because she is narrating the film doesn't mean she lives at the end. After all, it could have been a recording. Savages doesn't under-estimate the intelligence of the audience, until it does. It was almost a classic.
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