Oliver Stone’s film directing career has been as inconsistent as the mash-up blend of cinematic styles he incorporates into many of his movies. He often lacks discipline, on both a personal and professional basis, which often leads to the creation of films with a paradoxical mix of excellence and insanity. Savages is one of Stone’s movies that flips between bold and bland, to just blatantly bewildering.
Savages is based on the popular bestselling book by Don Winslow, who shares screenplay credit with Oliver Stone and Shane Salerno for this film. This movie is reminiscent of 1983’s Scarface, which Stone also wrote, and given his penchant for drugs, sex & ultra-violence, it’s no surprise that Stone was reportedly smitten by Winslow’s story.
Savages is the tale of a threesome consisting of former Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch), his passive entrepreneurial buddy Ben (Aaron Johnson) and their shared love interest, the free-spirited Ophelia (Blake Lively), or ‘O’ as she called by her two lovers. The friends have created an underground empire of premium marijuana production in Laguna Beach, California, where Ben is the brains, Chon is the brawn and O is the…well, bimbo.
The yuppie drug operation incorporates Chon’s ex-military friends for security, nerdy computer geniuses, botanists, investment strategists and dirty cops. It’s the perfect business plan and the friends become incredibly rich and comfortable in their lives. That is until a Mexican drug cartel decides to strong arm their way into the organization, demanding a percentage of the profits in return for helping them expand – whether they want to or not.
Ben & Chon refuse the cartel’s offer and the bad(er) guys kidnap O in order to force their cooperation. The bad situation snowballs from there as the surfing illegal-substance traffickers find out the hard way that the dope trade isn’t all fun-times and philanthropy.
Some of the cast in Savages is incredible; unfortunately I’m not talking about the primary characters of Ben, Chon and ‘O’ – whose performances range from awkward to drowse-inducing and dull. The bad(er) guys though are great and include Benicio Del Toro as a Hispanic hit-man and a conniving up-and-coming drug lord, Salma Hayek as the Mexican cartel’s curvaceous and cold-hearted kingpin and John Travolta as Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent who is playing both ends against the middle. The secondary characters steal the show in this film and outshine the less experienced primary actors in every scene.
The biggest error with this film is that there is no one really to root for, they’ve all got it coming and the only person that garners any real sympathy is the daughter of Salma Hayek’s drug lord character, who wants nothing to do with her mother or her shady business dealings, but finds herself in the middle of everything anyway. Sure, the young yuppie anti-heroes aren’t that bad, but their characters are so insipid and under-developed that I never cared whether they lived or died in the end.
My other issue with Savages is something I call “techxaggeration,” defined as when technology is used in a film, in an unbelievably exaggerating way, to quickly advance the story narrative. This ‘technique’ is rampant throughout this movie as modern-day gangsters use laptops and web cameras to humiliate each other, complete with JibJab style animations of decapitations and such. Massive data files are downloaded instantaneously and huge electronic money laundering activities are accomplished with just a couple of keystrokes. Things like this are a major pet-peeve of mine, and this movie is an endless stream of information system fantasy.
For me, Stone’s excessive use of ‘avant garde’ editing and filming techniques is another big and annoying problem. Someone needs to remind him that he is not in film school anymore; he’s an Academy Award winning director and he doesn’t have to resort to cinematic parlor tricks for his films to be considered art. Periodically fading your film to black & white for no logical reason doesn’t make the piece more artistic, this just makes it sad and desperate.