“Savages” is Good Fun, But Nothing More

“Savages,” the new candy-coated thriller from once-important director Oliver Stone, comes along at a propitious time. The film is about a bloody feud between a Mexican drug cartel and domestic marijuana growers, but the subject lurking throughout is the War on Drugs, which has been in the news quite a bit lately. First there was the election of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has promised to intensify Mexico’s long and bloody war against the cartels, which has left 50,000 people dead in the last five years. There have also recently been murmurings that President Obama will act to end the U.S. Drug War in his second term, although others have suggested it is just a case of election-year posturing. Regardless, the timing for this new film could not be better. Oliver Stone is a known marijuana-smoker and critic of the Drug War, so fans of serious films will line up hoping for an incisive take on a timely and important global issue.

But that’s not what they will get. Stone may drop some knowledge about recent developments in the Drug War and its effect on U.S. growers, and he does include a soft, embedded criticism of the schizophrenic U.S. drug laws, but for most of its 130-minute run time, “Savages” floods the screen with so much action, sex, and gore that it is impossible to walk away from the theater with anything resembling a serious thought.

The opening scenes drop us into Laguna Beach with MTV-style cuts of bikini-clad coeds. Next, we hear a breathy, detached voice-over from Blake Lively over surf music from indie rocker M. Ward. The whole opening is reminiscent of Patricia Arquette in “True Romance,” which itself was an homage to Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” So far, we are two steps removed from originality – not a good sign but indicative of the film to come, which never seeks to break new ground but consistently finds a well-worn groove.

Lively plays Ophelia, muse to two independent California marijuana growers. Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) is Chon, the Iraq/Afghanistan war vet, all muscles and intense glares. I don’t think he blinks for the entire movie. Aaron Johnson (who grew up fast after 2010’s “Kick-Ass”) is Ben, a brilliant hippie botanist who moonlights as a do-gooder, spending months at a time in Africa helping the needy. The three of them live and sleep together in an arrangement that seems too good to be true. Ophelia tells us that they love each other equally, and Stone gives us ample physical proof. Their relationship is a microcosm of the idealized sixties counterculture that has always been Stone’s political milieu. Here, there is sex, drugs, and surf, with seemingly no complications.

But as we know from movies like “Boogie Nights” and “Blow,” these idyllic arrangements only exist to come crashing down. Trouble comes in the form of an offer from a Mexican cartel to join forces – with a three-year commitment and a twenty percent cut. When Chon and Ben turn down their offer, the cartel responds by kidnapping Ophelia. To make matters worse, they leave her in the care of Benicio Del Toro. That’s never a good thing.

Benicio Del Toro

Chon and Ben hatch a scheme to get Ophelia back. When it falls apart, they hatch another. And another. Lines are crossed, and lots of blood is spilled, and throughout the tangled plot, the young actors play their roles with the utmost seriousness. The low-key performances of Kitsch and Johnson serve the plot well but do nothing more; their characters never truly come to life. Lively, however, gives an impressive performance. It would have been easy to play Ophelia as the terrified victim, but she gives her role unusual depth; a child of wealth and divorce, her Ophelia is far too self-involved to be frightened.

While the three young performers get the most screen time, it is an older cadre of actors – Salma Hayek as the cartel’s leader, John Travolta as a crooked DEA agent, and Del Toro – who steal the show. Approaching their roles with the humor that this silly script requires, they give life to a movie that too often resorts to clichés. Travolta’s performance in particular stayed with me. It’s a challenging role that requires he deliver a lot of exposition, but he nails the line between his character’s arrogance and desperation. It is his most dynamic performance since “Pulp Fiction.”

Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, and Taylor Kitsch

“Savages” is smarter and funnier than the average summer movie, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Stone could have done better with the material. For most of his five-decade career, he has steadfastly refused to play it safe. He got on everyone’s radar as screenwriter of the intense psychological thriller, “Midnight Express.” Next came the one-two punch of “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” two of the best films of and about the 1980s. After that, came his “important” period, in which he tackled subjects like the JFK assassination (“JFK”), the failure of the U.S. government to care for Vietnam veterans (“Born on the Fourth of July”), and Watergate (“Nixon”). These movies were overtly political but also deeply subjective; in each case, you could argue that they were more about Oliver Stone than about their ostensible subject matter.

Since then, he has continued to tackle politically-volatile topics such as the recent financial collapse (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) and the life of George W. Bush (“W.”), but these films have been uncharacteristically tame and lacking in political bite. For a filmmaker whose previous work bordered on narcissism, it may be a mark of progress that he seems to be considering his audience to a greater degree in these more commercial films, but it is also a little bit sad. We still need filmmakers who have something to say – maybe now, when studios seem less willing than ever to take a chance with original material, more than ever. “Savages” is highly entertaining, but given the public debate at this crucial time for the War on Drugs, I wished that Stone – and I never thought I would say this – would have told us how he really felt.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

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