Film Review: Savages (2012)
Whether he presents polarizing political messages or lets loose with graphic violence, Oliver Stone has never shied away from potentially controversial material. In recent years he has leaned more towards the former kind of films rather than the straightforward genre pieces saturated with excessiveness. Stone’s latest movie Savages (2012) is a fairly welcome return to his former gritty glory of mayhem. While it is undeniably messy (in both positive and negative ways), the film is not so extreme that viewers will have a headache afterwards (hello Natural Born Killers); rather, it is more of a “traditional”/straight-up shoot-and-slice-em-up action crime drama. Savages is an often thrilling and engrossing crime drama with solid ensemble acting, but it is hampered by some narrative issues (i.e. largely unnecessary voiceover) and an awfully anti-climactic ending that feels pretty cheap and contrived. Also, I have not read Don Winslow’s novel of the same name, but critics who have generally have found the adaptation is not quite up to par with the source material even though they enjoyed the movie for the most part.
Best friends Ben and Chon have built a fairly extensive and profitable business selling off-the-charts high-quality marijuana in California. Their production has done so well that one of the most notorious Mexican drug cartels approaches them with a “partnership” offer they dare not refuse; except that they do. Elena, the matriarch of the cartel, remains steadfast in her resolve to control Ben and Chon’s markets, so she orders her ruthless enforcer Lado to kidnap their girlfriend Ophelia (commonly referred to simply as “O”); and yes, she dates both Ben and Chon but they are completely fine with that arrangement. When
the cartel takes O, ex-military Chon’s vicious instincts kick into gear for revenge, but Ben, a Buddhist pacifist with aspirations for helping third-world countries, has more difficulty committing to defending themselves let alone fighting back full force. Nonetheless, the two must surrender their inhibitions and enter into a primal, carnal state if they ever want to get O back and settle the score with Elena’s cartel, not to mention outmaneuver or at least tenuously cooperate with the authorities via corrupt federal agent Dennis.
With so many characters and no one person in particular recognized as a primary protagonist, as Ben and Chon and even O could be considered the “lead,” this film is an ensemble work. Taylor Kitsch, who had two less-than-successful (to varying degrees) blockbusters earlier this year, is actually quite capable in the on edge, violent Chon. Aaron Johnson, of Kick-Ass (2010) fame, is serviceable as Ben, though many others have noted supporting actor Emile Hirsch, playing their financial tech guru Spin with ease, would have been a better choice for the Ben character; still, he does a decent job of holding his own. Blake Lively tries to tap into the talents she displayed in The Town (2010), but she cannot quite put forth the same level of performance here; this is partly due to the fact that some believe she is slightly miscast to play the wild character, as beautiful as she is. Furthermore, her character’s on-the-nose, unnecessary voiceover plagues her performance and the entire narrative.
The three primary “leads” give reliable, if unexceptional, turns, while some supporting performances shine from veteran cast members. Salma Hayek may not be as stunningly attractive as she used to be but she is still a dependable actress who adds a few layers of complexity/humanity to the otherwise evil/villainous role of Elena. On the other hand, Benicio Del Toro unleashes one of his most vicious performances as the straight up villainous cartel enforcer Lado; he is certainly the highlight of the film’s performances for making the audience both fear and laugh at the same time (i.e. conversation at another character’s home in the second half). John Travolta has not had a hit in several years, so he turns to make a supporting appearance here, which should help him return to the acting spotlight; he is another highlight of the ensemble as corrupt federal agent Dennis. Unfortunately, Travolta’s reunion with Pulp Fiction (1994) co-star Uma Thurman was not meant to be as her character was removed from the final cut of the film (she played Lively/O’s absent mother). 2011’s surprise best-actor nominee Demian Bichir makes a relatively small appearance as Elena’s ruthless lawyer. Also, character actor Shea Whigham has a minor role as Chad, a criminal lawyer who has Elena’s rival as one of his clients.
For viewers looking for a bloody good time, then Savages will deliver on more than one occasion. At an overstuffed, somewhat overlong 131-minute runtime, the movie offers plenty of violence and action. Just beware, certain scenes are brutally graphic, like Hostel (2005) intense. Action and crime drama/thriller fans should enjoy the film once Ben and Chon decide to take on the cartel.
While the story can be pretty gripping at times, the narrative flow occasionally gets interrupted or bogged down. The middle act suffers from numerous cuts back to O while she is being held captive by the cartel; not all of it needed to be cut completely, but it certainly slows the pace and her requests for better conditions become a little redundant after a while, though the dinner scene with Elena is definitely important. Moreover, the use of voiceover, particularly in the beginning, end and on occasion in between, is heavy-handed exposition that reverses the flow of drawing the audience deeper into this seedy underworld.
And then there is the issue of the ending, which will undoubtedly divide if not completely alienate the audience from satisfaction. If you have read many of my other reviews, then you know that I do not mind ambiguous or open-ended conclusions, in fact I often prefer them in dramas, so long as they are done effectively – they must serve the character/story, otherwise they are frustrating or confusing. With Savages, the open-ended conclusion is not as much of a bother as the anti-climactic climax is – you read that oxymoron right, an anti-climactic climax. Without spoiling the structure and what happens in the third act, just be ready for getting the rug pulled out from under you (and not like the jaw-dropping awesome Sixth Sense or Saw kind of twist). Instead, it has a brief burst of action followed by a fairly disappointing and extended falling action sequence after tremendous buildup. Cop-out is the term that most upset viewers would use to describe the contrived climax and ending.
Despite the messy pacing, misappropriated narrative techniques (i.e. voiceover) and poor ending, Savages is a solid action crime thriller from one of cinema’s most distinct voices Oliver Stone, who has not been this unrestrained in years. Technically, it is more than proficient, with state of the art cinematography, exciting music to support the scenes, and high production value. However, the story has its share of plot holes and is somewhat messily pieced together. Nonetheless, Savages should entertain its target audience with sufficient amounts of action/violence and a largely absorbing crime drama tale.
Savages – 7.5/10