Director: Oliver Stone.
Producers: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopelof. Writers: Shane Solerno, Oliver Stone, Don Winslow. Camera: Dan Mindel. Music: Adam Peters. Sets: Tomas Voth.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, Mia Maestro, Demian Bechir.
Ben (Taylor-Johnson) and Cho (Kitsch) grow the finest marijuana in the whole of America, if not the world. They’ve become very successful at developing, cultivating, and distributing this precious weed and live an idyllic life by the beach with the beautiful Ophelia (Lively), who is lover to them both. But their tranquility is threatened when the leader of a brutal Mexican drug cartel (Hayek) wishes to take over their enterprise. She has ‘O’ kidnapped, setting in train a series of events as Ben and Cho try to rescue her. It all ends very badly.
In a visceral (if not exactly lyrical) return to form for Stone (Wall Street 2, anybody? I thought not), the old goat of politco-cinema returns and harks back to the controversial, hysterical cartoon violence of Natural Born Killers mixed with a fairly obvious ‘drugs is bad kids’ message.
The story bears some familiar calling cards of that film but, in what could be a sign of the times since that film’s release (1994) this essay in ultra violence and bloodshed seems to have passed under the twitchy censor’s notice as a notorious, publicity seeking piece. Savages is a slightly aggravating, cinematic teenage younger brother trying to pull the rug from under his far more naughty, illustrious superior.
But even a slightly weaker Stone film is better than any other director’s attempt to assault the sensibilities.
From the opening, a typical Stoneian jolt to the system as grainy mobile phone footage shows a group of kidnapped men and then strikingly cutting away to an idyllic ocean surf image washes over you as a chainsaw is heard revving in the background, the Stoner (excuse the pun) still has an admirable grip on his audience.
It’s that all too recognisable, jaunty, fist in the face, beyond-mere-montage editing look that makes this so obviously Stone’s work. Only a director like this can get away with such visually verbose, poetic expressions of extreme violence and torture juxtaposed with the opening petals of lotus flowers, a paradise beach front setting, loved up troilism and questionably sweet ethical stances as Taylor-Johnson seems to plow his ill-gotten loot into funding schools and sanitation projects in the third world. (Are drug dealers, even those who fervently follow Buddha, this altruistic)?
One thing that does count against him, and perhaps it can be ascribed to the self-indulgence of a famous film-maker, is the alternative ending, which to this reviewer seemed a stylistic flourish too far and added extra time to an already fairly long heist movie.
Another detraction is sometimes half-arsed, unintentionally funny dialogue. When Ophelia tells us “Just because I’m telling you this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive by the end of it”, you know that beach bum drop-out naval gazing will be the order of the day throughout. Later, on her sex life with strapping war veteran Cho: “I had organs…he had wargasms”, blah blah, you get the picture.
Stone and his team have assembled a dream cast though who play it (apart from the three young leads) as if they were headlining a coke-fuelled panto.
The extraordinary Hayek enjoys herself as a drug ‘el-matriarchi’, dead-eyed and buxom, wearing a tarantula-black wig as she calmly orders a raft of executions.
Travolta, as a chilled out FBI Agent who is also in the pocket of the cartels, seems to have wandered in bleary eyed from the set of another film, possibly an as yet un-named Tarantino comeback flick that has presently hit the financial buffers.
Del Toro has the better part as the wily, flinty eyed enforcer who seems to be double and triple-crossing all of other the characters in the film, coldly dispatching those in his way with awesome neatness. His modulated voice and almost serene exterior make his actions seem even more heinous.
Taylor-Johnson, Kitsch and Lively (who narrates in a pop style) look lively in the leads and hold their own to some degree, but this is an older person’s film and all the better for it.