If there’s one thing you can count on from an Oliver Stone movie it’s the fact that you’re never going to be bored. Love it or hate it (and yes, his movies do tend to be polarizing), there’s always something to talk about, or an image that stays with you…even when you don’t necessarily want it to. As is the case with his latest, Savages.
Savages begins with a voiceover from O (Blake Lively), a hippie-dippy poor little rich girl turned sexual plaything and pseudo-wife to marijuana mini-moguls Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). O explains that the trio live in a giant seaside home in Laguna Beach, where Ben puts his botany degree to good use genetically engineering batches of ultra potent weed which he then supplies to medical marijuana stores as a front while shipping the product out of state to make major profit.
Chon is and ex-Navy SEAL recently home from Iraq and apparently suffering from PTSD (O explains that while she has orgasms during their frequent rolls in the hay, “he has wargasms” ummm…TMI?) which is perfect because he acts as the business’ no nonsense enforcer. As for O, she’s seemingly delighted just to shop, lounge on the deck, smoke a bowl and enthusiastically bed both guys because…well…who really needs a reason other than she’s hot, has a lot of butterfly tattoos (obviously indicating a free spirit) and looks good all sweaty and naked? No one ever accused Oliver Stone of writing women well.
Just as the boys begin discussing a way to retire from the drug business (Ben’s looking to go legit and use his millions to save the world), their turf is threatened by an expansion-minded drug cartel out of Mexico. Elena (Salma Hayek), a drug war widow-turned iron-fisted boss of the operation is ruthless in her pursuit of Ben and Chon’s grow-op, yet will only do a deal if they commit to staying with the business for three years.
The boys say no, and soon Elena has sent her sadistic deputy Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to snatch O and deliver the message that unless they sign on with a smile, O will meet a particularly brutal end. Instead of rolling over, the boys opt to fight for theirs and O’s freedom, employing the help of a crooked DEA officer (John Travolta) and sheer will of devotion to their blonde-haired concubine.
Apparently each side sees the other as “savages” – we know this because it’s said aloud several times in a manner that seems only to be missing someone turning to the audience and winking as the word tumbles out of their mouth. The ruthless Mexicans simply can’t fathom the three-way sexy times that happen Chez Ben-Chon and the new-agey white people don’t approve of the videos featuring torture and decapitations that the drug lords keep sending their way (here’s a tip: send all email from Mexican drug cartels directly to your junk mail folder).
Clocking in at over two-hours, Savages feels unnecessarily bloated and exposition heavy. None of the multiple twists and turns ever feel seamless and each character seems to be twisting themselves into knots to complicate matters for the sake of complication. It’s a film without reason, a soul or a genuine pulse, even though Hayek and Del Toro attempt to convince you otherwise by chewing up the scenery at an alarming rate.
As for our supposed heroes, neither Kitsch or Lively register as anything more than sun-dappled and pretty. Even Johnson, who is very definitely one of the finest young character actors around, can’t compete with all of Stone’s bombastic camera movements, fiery explosions or splattering gore, nor a script that doesn’t seem to care about making the main characters three-dimensional. Travolta fares a bit better, making his thankless role as a dude who shows up just to explain various important plot points seem natural.
Mostly, Savages is just laughably self-serious. For every moment that’s a semi-relevant indictment of the drug business, there are two scenes featuring someone dramatically collapsing to the floor and ripping their wig off in despair, or someone else getting bullwhipped until their eyeball is dangling out of its socket. It’s like a telenovela on speed or a SAW movie with a moral centre. In other words, it’s not yawn-inducing but it’s certainly not as savage or intelligent as it thinks it is.