Following the resounding failure of passion-project Alexander (a film that appears to be spawning an unending stream of director-endorsed alternative cuts), Oliver Stone has still managed to churn out a movie every couple of years. But something seems to have happened to him along the way. Maybe it happened long before. I might point the finger at his absurdly over-saturated take on Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script as the first indication that Stone had run out of things to say, or to say passionately and provocatively. NBK, no doubt fuelled by Quentin’s sensibilities to some extent, is an adolescent’s idea of how to create controversy. Its desire to “cause a scene” renders it free of any of the resonance of the director’s run of ‘80s fare. Savages feels like a descendant of NBK. It’s a well-enough directed film, and it’s reasonably involving. But it’s surely closer to a 15-year old Stone’s romantic fantasy of weed-smoking and easy-lays than one who is in his mid-60s and should be becoming more incisive as he matures.
Perhaps Stone had just plain vented all he needed to on Vietnam and JFK. And then he was just shouting incoherently in the corner about anything and everything. As it is, Nixon is the last film of his that really felt powered by intellect as much as a desire to express emotions. Much of what he has made since comes across as slightly enervated, slightly irate studio product. It’s a shame, as the yardstick I always judged his films by was not Platoon but Salvador. It’s the kind of director I’d hoped he would continue to be; passionate, angry, with clearly defined subject matter focused within his sights. But he seemed to fizzle (I quite like W. but it isn’t exactly audacious). I should probably admit that I’ve yet to view World Trade Center; I just can’t bring myself to see the director so completely neutered.
To some extent, Savages might be seen as forming a loose trilogy with NBK and U-Turn. All three see the director make a film in the contemporary crime genre, where style rules over content and where the result finds his vision at its least arresting. Perhaps he knows this, which is why he pulls out every filmmaking trick in the book to sell something that doesn’t truly inspire him. Ironically, Savages’ subject matter isn’t so far from the film that got him critical praise and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay; Midnight Express. But if that took an unglamorous stance on the drug trade, Savages is all fantasy; a Tarantino movie without the jokes but enough brutal violence and bromance to suggest Joe Carnahan might have been interested in it at one point.
This is a cartoon version of the drugs trade, cartels, Iraq war veterans and pot-smoking, where a ménage-a-trois exists because the weed (presumably?) fuels a dippy dream world of hippy idealism. Although, the only proponent of this is Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) one half of the weed-growing team with Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Ben is such a good guy, he devotes the profit he makes to helping the impoverished in the Third World (how he finds the time to do this, and get stoned is open to debate). He has kind-of dreads, so you know he’s a loveable crusty-type. Iraq war vet and former Navy SEAL Chon (how Hollywood must delight in having a ready source of veterans these days; it was dicey for a while post-Vietnam and looked like there might be a generation gap).
Their weed is just the best, man. It has an extraordinarily high THC content, so they attract the attention of the Mexican Baja cartel. Whom they turn down until their mutual squeeze “O” (Ophelia, played by Blake Lively) is abducted. O is a flakey airhead bimbo, the type who wants to go to the mall before she leaves the country for an unspecified time, and who has unspecified parent issues (so we can sympathise with her, right?) O also provides a voice-over narration, which immediately draws uncomplimentary parallels with Badlands and True Romance.
I don’t know how much this is Stone or author of the novel (and co-credited on the screenplay) Don Winslow. Maybe Winslow is a great crime writer and this is a patchy adaptation. I’d have to find time to delve into his works. Michael Mann has had The Winter of Frankie Machine in development for aeons, it seems. Whatever the truth, the script is awash with surface gloss and little substance. The spacey voice-over adds to this sense (as does an unnecessary and ineffective double-take ending that is almost funny in its brazen clumsiness). We know things don’t bode well when O introduces Chon with, “I have orgasms, he has war-gasms”. OMG! How cool is that! Winslow, Stone and co-writer Shane Salerno (who boasts AvP: Requiem amongst his credits) seem to have the sights set on the quasi-mythic (they verbally reference Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but are too determinedly vacuous to justify such comparisons.
This is a film where a unit of war veterans assemble to protect a pot dealership, and one where the matriarchal cartel boss (Salma Hayek) just needs a female companion to talk to and remind her of her estranged daughter. Hayek does her best, but even if her character has been written as loosing her grip on power she fails to convince as one who strikes the fear of God into her subjects. Her relationship with O isn’t remotely convincing either (in that O is utterly clueless, like). I’m not familiar enough with Blake Lively’s work to be sure if she is limited or it’s a well-observed rendition of a shallow character, but I tend to the former. Certainly, she pales next to Patricia Arquette or Sissy Spacek. And, for a character that is so sexually forthright, Lively’s performance, and no-nudity clause, seems determinedly chaste (certainly compared to her male co-stars).
The problems with casting aren’t limited to Lively, however. Taylor-Johnson gives a strong performance, adding much-needed believability to Ben’s discovery that violence is part and parcel of his (drug) deal. And he convincingly “ages-up” for a role (the actor is barely into his 20s). But, in contrast, Kitsch is something of a charisma vacuum and fails to convey the reported toughness and imposing presence of Chon. Their free-love interrelationship isn’t particularly interesting or daring, not least because they all seem so blithely accepting of it (obviously this strain of weed causes zero paranoia!)
It’s left to a couple of older supporting hands to bring what’s necessary to the table. Benicio Del Toro is tough, and scary, as Hayek’s right-hand man. He tortures with impunity, beats up his wife and generally oozes impending violence. John Travolta matches him for charisma as a balding, corrupt DEA agent with a dying wife. Travolta’ easy-going charm is perfectly positioned here, running the gamut from false confidence to affability to fear (and a penchant for prop acting; he’s never without some item of food he’s in the process of consuming). There’s an enormously enjoyable scene between him and Del Toro where you’re unsure what the hell will transpire.
And what the film needs is more of this sort of scene. As noted, Stone appears to come unstuck when he has nothing to say, and he’s not preaching it from the rooftops. I’m sure the pro-legalisation debate is dear to his heart, but Savages is completely disinterested in engaging seriously with it. Really, it’s a bit of a cop-out to have the duo as pot-dealers as few would now challenge that weed at least has benefits in certain circumstances (as Stone lays on with a trowel in the opening scenes showing how these young dealers ensure that their product goes to medicinal marijuana users). It also makes the contemporary setting feel curiously fractured, that this should be set in the ‘70s. Are the levels of THC being produced really that stupendous? Surely every other producer is producing crazily potent strains these days?
While there are a few twists and turns along the way, the plot is underdeveloped for the (bloated) running time. Ben and Chon’s plan to get O back is neither clever nor intriguing enough to justify our attention; everything comes too easy to them. Which suggests that everything came too easy to the writer, something only confirmed when we arrive at the aforementioned twist climax.