From left: Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch. (Photos by Pacific Coast News | Ixtlan | Getty Images)
The Bottom LineShould you see it?
Oliver Stone's newest is a return to his early years as he takes his foot off the topical peddle and simply tells a good old-fashioned violent love story.
It isn't Oliver Stone
's fault he hasn't made a movie like this since the Clinton Administration. Since Any Given Sunday
in 1999, Stone has made a 9/11 movie (World Trade Center
), a Bush movie (W.
), and a financial crisis movie (Wall St: Money Never Sleeps
). He's a filmmaker who loves to stir the shit storm with films full of purpose or message. Savages
highlights the violence you'd expect of modern Mexican drug cartels, but Stone wisely steers clear of political/social issues.
Based on Don Winslow's best-seller of the same name, Savages
is unable to capture the novel's sarcastic humor and plays out more conventionally than one might guess. The heroes, best friends Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch
and Aaron Johnson
), run a potent and profitable cannabis operation in Laguna Beach, CA. The boys are polar opposites but share a girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively
), nicknamed "O" and live the polyamorous good life.
Lively's voice carries the film's prologue, saying, "I have orgasms. Chon has 'war-gasms.'" This in reference to his military background and intensity (in and out of the bedroom). Narration aside, the beginning is classic Stone as we flashback from present-day to show the threesome's origin. He's a master at this and when the story actually begins, the three main characters are already well-formed.
Violence manifests itself through the film's greatest asset: Lado. Benicio Del Toro
plays a lieutenant in one of Mexico's two biggest cartels. He does the killing for the boss, Elena (Salma Hayek
), and drives nearly all the action. He's a charismatic sociopath in the spirit of Tony Montana and Mickey Knox, both Stone anti-heroes. Lado enjoys killing and, more than that, he needs it. Del Toro is magnetic in this role, envoking hatred and empathy in a layered performance that may not earn him an Oscar nomination next year... but it should. Nobody blows lines of coke like Del Toro.
Lado and another cartel dude, Alex (Demian Bichir
Chon and Ben a visit and make them an offer they can't refuse: Join us or else. When the two Americans present a counter-offer, O is kidnapped and the film shifts into high gear. The action sequences that drive the narrative are stylized and anarchic. Stone, who influenced many of today's action hungry directors, returns to the frenzied editing, multiple-camera, multiple-format style of Natural Born Killers
. Bothersome in the wrong hands, the device of switching from a webcam to steady cam to black and white actually works well for Savages
Stone paces the action with smart details that either enhance the coming scene or serve as an absurd juxtaposition (like transitioning with a shot of a beach bunny roller-blader crashing hilariously into a wall). All the puzzle pieces fit. The soundtrack is reliably all over the place, mixing Adam Peters' score with songs from Bob Dylan
, M. Ward
, Peter Tosh, and a haunting version
of "Psycho Killer" by Bruce Lash. Cinematographer Dan Mindel's camera is drenched in Orange County sunshine. This is a California movie and thus, part of the new guard of postmodern westerns.
The ending is a cop-out and fans of the book will not be pleased. O tells us from the beginning she may not be alive when the story ends so the unreliable narrator keeps us off-balance and ready for anything. But, when Stone presents two different endings, he fails to make a choice and it doesn't do the story justice. Luckily, the real story is the return of Oliver Stone. Savages
proves the iconic director's still got it.
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