Savages (United States, 2012)

July 04, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Savages Poster

Savages is a drug-fueled crime delirium that doesn't break much new ground in the genre but offers a volatile concoction of violence, heroism, and amorality that is compulsively watchable. The director is Oliver Stone, a filmmaker often associated with controversial material, but Savages represents a straightforward, non-political film that feels closer to what we have come to expect from Michael Mann than Stone. There's no ulterior motive here; the director's goal is to bring Don Winslow's novel to life on the screen and he does so effectively. The screenplay has its share of twists and turns, but none are of the sort that stretch credulity, and there are individual scenes in which the degree of suspense and tension escalates to edge-of-seat levels. The biggest problems with Savages are several narrative dead spots and the introductory sequences (obviously modeled after those in Martin Scorsese's Casino), which are needlessly convoluted. Lengthy expository scenes should do a better job of setting up the backstory than these do.

Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are mismatched drug dealers. Chon, a veteran of several tours in Afghanistan, is a cold killer who thinks nothing of putting a bullet into the head of someone who double-crosses him. Ben, on the other hand, is a pacifist who follows Buddhist teachings and uses his share of the profits to fund overseas philanthropic enterprises. Both men are in love with Ophelia (Blake Lively), and she is in love with them. The trio cohabits in a state of unconventional domestic bliss, where threesomes are regular occurrences and everything occurs through a haze of marijuana smoke. (Remember, though: it's Ben and Chon, not Cheech and Chong.)

Ben and Chon's brand is in great demand due to its high percentage of THC. A Mexican cartel, led by crime lord Elena (Salma Hayek), wants to "partner" with Ben and Chon. She sends her lawyer, Alex (Demian Bichir), to secure the deal. Ben and Chon are split over whether the "partnership" is a good idea. After consulting with a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), they decide to spurn the offer. Unwilling to let go of the opportunity, Elena unleashes the dogs. She sends in psychopath Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap Ophelia.

Thematically, Savages illustrates how even the most laid-back and cultured men can be ruled by their base, primal instincts when circumstances warrant it. But this isn't intended to be a deeply philosophical motion picture. It appeals on a visceral level, offering bad guys with black hearts, gruesome violence, and the thrill of being unsure how things are going to resolve. The ending may generate a degree of dissatisfaction with some viewers; it can be seen as either a brilliant case of misdirection or a cheat. I side more with those who interpret it as the former, but I can understand the viewpoint of the latter. It is gratuitous, but it adds flair to the resolution. I think I would have enjoyed the movie equally without it, though.

From an acting standpoint, Blake Lively makes a compelling case that she doesn't have what it takes to play this sort of a role; she lacks the chops to carry the elements of the movie in which she is expected to dominate. It's hard to accept that her Ophelia is the kind of sex goddess muse who inspires men to kill or to die. We feel the connection between Taylor Kitsch's Chon and Aaron Johnson's Ben. These two have a full-blown "bromance," but the same degree of chemistry is not evident between either of these men and Lively. Her most convincing scene is one in which she shares a meal with Salma Hayek. John Travolta is Savages' highest profile actor, but his role is secondary and his performance is unremarkable. The scene-stealer is Benicio Del Toro who is frighteningly good as the sociopath Lado; this guy who belongs in a James Bond movie.

Stone avoids the stylistic excesses that have damaged some of his previous efforts. The film begins in black-and-white with shaky cam action but the director quickly reverts to a more traditional approach. He finds a tripod and the action switches to color. With the exception of some filters to add tint to certain scenes, Stone's approach is refreshingly unadorned. There are few instances in which filmmaking technique interferes with an appreciation of the story or the suspense it begets. Savages delivers a more satisfying motion picture experience than nearly all of the higher profile, bigger budgeted summer blockbusters. It's nice to have something adult out there to counterbalance all the teen-friendly crap.

Savages (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2012-07-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1