Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Savages

When I think of Oliver Stone movies, I think of Kevin Costner’s voice saying “back and to the left; back and to the left,” while the same set of frames from the Zapruder film are shown repeatedly.  Sure, Stone has directed over 20 films, but it’s his films associated with some sort of political or social agenda for which he is best remembered.  In regards to his latest movie, Savages, I’ve seen it written that Stone has seemingly made a movie  - free from his typical ideological agendas – designed only to entertain.  Having seen it, I caution you not to believe that hype. 

Savages is a movie about two friends, Ben and Chon (played by Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch respectively) who are independent marijuana producers at risk of being absorbed by the large but fledgling Baja cartel from Mexico.  When they refuse to acquiesce to the demands of the cartel – Elena, the leader of the cartel played by Salma Hayek – uses Blake Lively’s O as the ultimate bargaining chip against the two men.  Violence ensues.

The premise of the film is interesting enough at face value, but things begin to fall apart a bit as the film fleshes out dynamics of the curious love triangle that exists between Kitsch, Lively, and Johnson.  When you add to this mix the chicanery of John Travolta’s corrupt DEA agent Dennis, the grotesque perversion of Benicio Del Toro’s Lado, the out-of-nowhere familial strife of Salma Hayek’s Elena, all against the backdrop of a Meixcan cartel war, it is easy to understand how the key points of the movie get swallowed up by this morass of subcontext to the point where one loses track of what’s at stake.  I liken it to being lost at sea when you can no longer see the shore and thus have lost track of where you were, where you are, and where you are supposed to be heading. 

When the movie pays less attention to this peripheral noise and gets back to the business of people with guns enforcing their agendas, it is at its best.  Oliver Stone does some very good work building tension into the plot and paying that off with sound action sequences.  Unfortunately even that gets diminished at times when Stone breaks the reality of the film by occasionally plugging what amounts to a jambalaya of his poli-social inclinations – everything from going green, to building waterways in Indonesia, to education technology, to legalizing marijuana, and of course government corruption.  While some of these movements are good things, the feeling that Stone is pushing this laundry list of causes breaks the reality of the film.  It is however hard to hold it against him, as the man simply cannot help himself.

The thing that surprises me most about the movie is that Taylor Kitsch delivers a very good performance.  He carries the weight of a war veteran to the role as the iron hammer of the group.  He is a one trick pony as an actor but it just so happens that this one gear suits this role.  Aaron Johnson is also very competent playing the lover to Ktisch’s fighter.  The contrast between the two leads is one of the strongest aspects of the movie.  Blake Lively continues to prove she is not much of an actress and that hers is the voice that narrates the film is in no way a good thing.  Benicio Del Toro is especially strong as the antagonist as his character’s grotesque perversion is palpable and lends credible weight to the proceedings.   As for John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, and Salma Hayek, the best I can say is that each of their performances is adequate but not remarkable.  

I have mixed emotions about the film.  I liked it more than I thought I would, but that doesn’t necessarily mean It was a particularly good movie.  I think at the end of the day Savages is best left for a home entertainment viewing as it is a flawed film and there are plenty of other alternatives in theaters now.  It has issues with tone, pacing, and logic and at times loses its way, but Stone is a well-accomplished director who does just enough with the action sequences to keep the film entertaining. 

Standout Performance: While this is in no way an award-winning performance, Benicio Del Toro turns in what is his most compelling work since Traffic.   


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