Directed by: Oliver Stone
Premise: A pair of California based marijuana entrepreneurs (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) resists a hostile takeover from a Mexican drug cartel. In response, the cartel kidnaps the pair’s shared girlfriend (Blake Lively).
What Works: Savages links the violence of the drug trade with politics and economics and in those moments the film recalls the boldness and brilliance of Oliver Stone’s earlier films. These moments are largely brought to life by some strong supporting performances. Salma Hayek plays the head of the drug cartel and Benicio Del Toro is cast as her primary enforcer. Hayek’s character is depicted as a compromised woman who must literally be cutthroat to survive in her business but whose success in the drug trade has come at the cost of her relationship with her daughter (Sandra Echeverría). Del Toro makes the biggest impression in the film as a sadistic henchman and he exudes menace. Also impressive is John Travolta as a DEA agent. Travolta’s character walks a fine line in every scene he is in, always one misstep away from getting killed, and Travolta’s energy brings a lot to the film.
What Doesn’t: Despite a few bright spots in the supporting cast, Savages is another stumble for Oliver Stone, whose output of films over the past decade has been uneven to say the least. The main problem of Savages is its three main characters, who are the least compelling figures in the entire story, especially the love interest played by Blake Lively. It is not the fault of the actress; Lively has proven to be capable in other roles, but the film does not give her anything to do and saddles her character with awful narration. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play the marijuana dealers and the movie’s depiction of their relationship quickly descends from pseudo-philosophical explorations of love and money to a buddy-cop film in which Johnson’s character is the good cop and Kitsch plays the bad cop. There is nothing to their relationship except what Lively’s character tells us about them and their friendship is never realized on the screen in a meaningful way. In order for these men to share Lively’s character in the way that they do either she must be someone so special that the men would be satisfied with just a part of her or these men must have some underlying philosophical ideas about love that would be at odds with capitalistic values of possession. Lively’s character is certainly no one special and the film never delves into the professional or personal relationship of these men more than superficially. This means that the main crux of the film, that these two relatively peaceful characters will take up violence to rescue the woman they love, has no foundation and the story never has the dramatic urgency that will draw the audience into it. This becomes worse as the film goes along and despite being a story about drugs, money, sex, and murder, Savages is rather boring. It lacks the boldness of Oliver Stone’s earlier work and the ending is a hacky bait-and-switch that is beneath this director’s talents. Speaking of Stone’s earlier work, Savages will make an interesting companion piece to the 1983 version of Scarface, which Oliver Stone wrote. It is nowhere near as good as that film and it does exactly what critics of Scarface claimed, in that glamorizes the violence of the drug underworld.
Bottom Line: Savages lacks a narrative fulcrum around which the performances and set pieces will rotate and give the film its dramatic momentum. This is a mediocre film and another disappointing effort from Oliver Stone.
Episode: #397 (July 22, 2012)