“I’d take the deal instead of decapitation.”
I could name you at least ten directors with fewer Oscars than Oliver Stone that I think are better. The thing about Oliver Stone though, is that when he is at the top of his game (The Doors, JFK, Platoon, Natural Born Killers) there are very few directors that are better.
The dichotomy that is Oliver Stone’s career is that when he’s not at the top of his game (Alexander, World Trade Center, Heaven & Earth, W) he is everything that his detractors hate about him. And every now and again, he makes a film that falls smack dab in the middle of those two extremes. One such film was released this weekend…
From the trailers & everything I’d read about Savages, I thought this was going to be a full-on return to form for the grizzled, violent, cynical director Stone was at his mid-90’s peak. It took me only about ninety seconds into the film itself for me to realize that this wasn’t going to be that return to form, but there was still an awful lot to like about the film.
Savages tells the story of Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) & Ophelia, or O for short (Blake Lively), who run a lucrative marijuana business in California. Ben’s peace-loving, free-wheeling ways have brought them a drug business with “99% of the violence” removed. The trio are also, in addition to being business partners, romantically entangled with one another. This isn’t presented as anything odd or unusual, which was actually refreshing for a film made in this day and age where anything outside the norm needs to be justified a million ways from Sunday to even be included in the film, but I digress.
While they’re the picture of paradise at the onset of the film, trouble starts when the Mexican Baja Cartel wants to fold the trio’s business into theirs, and they politely refuse. The Baja Cartel is run by Elena (a better than usual Salma Hayek), and she does not take the rejection lightly, having her henchman Lado (Benicio DelToro) kidnap O in an attempted “hostile takeover” of their business.
What neither Elena nor anyone else expected, however, is that Ben & Chon wouldn’t just roll over, and they take it upon themselves to get O back by any means necessary. They hesitantly partner with Dennis (John Travolta), a crooked DEA agent, to get O back, and then the fun starts. Double & triple crosses, betrayals, violence, rape, drugs, reversals, crooked cops, did I mention rape? Things spin out of control fast for everyone, including the audience.
Here’s the thing, Savages isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. It’s a staggeringly mediocre film that almost completely and totally ruins any credibility it’s built up with an unbelievably stupid ending. Short of The Fonz coming up out of the Pacific Ocean on water skis to jump over a shark, this film could not have failed any more to stick the landing. I don’t want to go into details or spoilers, but if you go and see this, when the film feels like it should end, get up and leave, because it doesn’t. It goes on about 120 seconds too long, and ends up virtually ruining itself in the process.
I’m not sure if this was a ruined ending by committee or if the blame for this falls squarely on Stone’s shoulders, but it is thoroughly asinine the way the film wraps up. Especially when you consider all the foreshadowing and projecting that the film does that it’s going to end a certain way. The motives of at least three characters throughout the entire film are made null and void by the tacked on ending to this film.
As far as the performances go, Travolta is revelatory. He’s an actor that, when he’s at his best, is unhinged, manic & eminently watchable, and he’s all of those things here. I don’t think he’s had as much fun on screen since Face/Off & it shows. Hayek is also pretty fantastic, projecting power & menace very comfortably. DelToro is good too, but he’s been better elsewhere. For as crazy as his character is, I would have liked to see him go off more, but he’s decent.
The same cannot be said for the core trio. Of the three, Johnson manages to walk away more or less unscathed. He’s far and away the most convincing, and manages to give the closest thing to a performance of the three. Kitsch needs to just go away. This is the third time he’s been given a major role in the last four months, and he is never anything but a total bore to watch. As for Lively, she’s anything but. Whenever she speaks (and it’s a lot, considering she also narrates the film), I could hear Willy Wonka’s voice in the back of my head saying “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak.” She’s a mumbler, and it’s annoying. She’s devoid of charisma & generally looks like she’d rather be anywhere else when she’s onscreen. Someone, please oblige her.
Long story short, this isn’t the return to his glory that Oliver Stone fans were hoping for, but it’s also not the total disaster his last five films have been. It falls firmly in the middle of his long and varied career, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction. If you’re a fan, I would normally tell you to run right out and see this, but due to that ending, I’m knocking a full point off the film’s total score. When you do get around to seeing this film, I think you’ll understand why.
PopGO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]