Perhaps realizing how badly he fumbled the ball with 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps—a film that, ironically enough, I have never been able to stay awake all the way through—Oliver Stone takes another shot at modern capitalism with Savages. Based on a clipped, bloody crime novel by Don Winslow, it’s an unrepentantly trashy, lurid genre picture—quite the unlikely Trojan horse for Stone’s scattergun social satire. But Savages is also visually dazzling, at times bluntly simplistic and over-written, boasting a couple of bravura performances and breathtaking set-pieces, even though it’s all a smidge overlong and sometimes jarringly misogynist.
In other words, it’s an Oliver Stone movie.
We begin in Laguna Beach, which cinematographer Dan Mindel has shot like heaven on Earth, where hippy-dippy O (Blake Lively) frolics in the surf and rambles at length in what we can only assume is intentionally inane voice-over about her blissed-out existence as part of a groovy ménage-a-trois with millionaire marijuana entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch.)
They’re determinedly as yin and yang as any writer’s device since Barnes and Elias in Stone’s own Platoon. Ben is a dreadlocked Buddhist who fancies himself the Bono of the drug trade, spending a majority of his ill-gotten gains bringing clean water to impoverished villages in Indonesia. Chon is scarred from tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq and always itching for a fight. Or, as Lively’s O helpfully explains: “Chon is always trying to fuck the war out of himself. I have orgasms. He has wargasms.”
Trouble arrives in paradise when a ruthless Tijuana cartel wants to buy out this family business. Salma Hayek shows up in full vamp dragon-lady mode—complete with a Bettie Page wig and threats to “go after your whore mother next”—and our crazy kids should probably figure out this gang means business when they send webcam videos of henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) nonchalantly kicking around severed heads like soccer balls.
There’s a delicious supporting turn from John Travolta, all paunchy and de-wigged as a cheerfully corrupt, double-dealing DEA agent charged with issuing most of Stone’s thesis statements. “In this economy, just be happy you’ve got a product people still want to buy. But Wal-Mart wants it now. And you don’t fuck with Wal-Mart.” So the stage is set for a battle royale in which a large corporation is trying to gobble up our local mom-and-pop store. Except, in this case, Mom and Pop sell weed with a 33 percent THC count.
Naturally, the kids fuck with Wal-Mart, so the next step is for O to find herself kidnapped and chained in a basement, subject to the creepy erotic insinuations of Del Toro at his most grandiosely baroque. A spoiled SoCal brat to the end, O bristles at a diet of cheap pizza and demands that her tormentors “bring a salad once in a while.”
Stone has never been a subtle filmmaker, and honestly, who wants him to be? My favorite flourish is when Ben and Chon take the fight to the cartel in true underdog fashion—borrowing insurgent techniques that the latter learned the hard way in the Middle East, knocking these foreign invaders back on their heels with sniper attacks and roadside IEDs. Juicy stuff.
Savages has a pulpy kick, one you’ll wish the movie could maintain just a bit more consistently. The script (by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno) gets a bit bogged down in double-crosses during a fatty midsection, and the director’s patented multiple-film stock razzle-dazzle feels weirdly reserved by today’s flutter-cut standards.
In the lead roles, Johnson and Lively are dead-weight pretty nothings, vacant and adrift. The good news is that Kitsch—who had a rough year headlining a couple high-profile bombs to little effect—here steps back into fine Friday Night Lights form as a valiant, if somewhat sketchy, sidekick.
Del Toro and Travolta appear to be having the time of their lives, particularly during a convoluted expository sequence that begins with a threat of violence and somehow ascends to heights of over-acting nirvana simply by the way Del Toro chooses to menace Travolta’s sandwich instead of the man.
Stone’s most audacious gambit is a switchback double-ending gimmick that caused my preview audience to howl obscenities at the screen in groans of visceral betrayal. Yet the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Contrasting adolescent romantic nihilism with a far more insidious triumph of Big Business expediency, he manages to make “happily ever after” feel far bleaker than all the carnage that has come before—and a slow-motion victory strut by a former king of the dance floor might be the most cynical shot of this filmmaker’s entire career.
Savages is messy and electric, as deeply problematic as it is provocative. In other words, it’s an Oliver Stone movie.
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively