Stone’s sign of the high times
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 6, 2012
There are two, maybe three, Oliver Stones: the revisionist historian who drives Washington literalists batty with such lurid re-imaginings as “JFK” and “Nixon,” the straight-ahead mainstream auteur who limns the American experience in such magisterial dramas as “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon,” and the all-to-the-wall hellion who extrudes that same experience through hallucinatory dreamscapes and lurid violence in genre films such as “Natural Born Killers.”
The snap, crackle and pulp of Stone’s rock-and-roll inclinations fuels “Savages,” his big bad boy of an adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel. A candy-colored black valentine to titillation, garish brutality and groovy post-fin-de-siecle excess, this ode to cinema’s most exploitative pleasures finds Stone chronicling America’s dark side at its most sun-kissed. Drenched in light and sprawling across the screen in an anamorphic splash of wide-screen extravagance, “Savages” is a B-movie striving for an A-plus, a decadently energetic summer escape with bloody action, bold visuals and bodacious attitude to burn.
For filmgoers who can remember as far back as 2005, “Savages” could be described as the movie “Domino” tried so frenetically to be. With a filmmaker who’s both a storyteller and a stylist at the helm, material that in the earlier film fell victim to fatal incoherence here makes sense -- albeit depraved, lightweight sense.
As O (Blake Lively) explains in the detached, So-Cal voiceover that threads through the film, she has been living in a blissed-out menage a trois in Laguna Beach with Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), marijuana dealers who grow the the best product in the country, commanding up to $6,000 a pound. When they come into the sights of a Mexican cartel run via Skype and sadistic torture by a savvy leader called Elena (Salma Hayek, bewigged to resemble Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction”), they become embroiled in a battle that will ultimately involve Elena’s chief enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and Chon and Ben’s most important U.S. contact, Dennis (John Travolta).
As zoned-out as Lively’s voice and on-screen performances are, they’re arguably well-suited to O, a drifting, privileged California girl whose heedlessness turns out to mirror some issues in Elena’s own life. And it takes the latter character to observe the real romantic dynamics behind the threesome’s idyllic housekeeping arrangement: the push and pull between Chon -- a former Navy SEAL still haunted by what he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Ben, a progressive pacifist who uses his ill-gotten gains to bring laptops and solar cells to Africa. “Ben’s a Buddhist. Chon’s a Baddist,” O says in her narration, underlining the contradictory tensions that Stone emphasizes throughout “Savages.”
Casting Ben and Chon’s struggle as a mom-and-pop operation (okay, mom-and-pop-and-pop operation) against a big-box store, the director manages to make an otherwise throwaway crime story chime with real-time politics, from the recession to the recent victory of the Institutional Revolutionary Pary (PRI) in Mexico.
Of the film’s three protagonists, only Ben -- played with wide-eyed vulnerability and warmth by Johnson -- develops any real dimension.
Still, if the pretty but vacant members of the central trio never come fully into focus, the film’s supporting players jump out with explosive, often hilarious vividness. Travolta and Del Toro especially make the most of their characters, finally coming together in one of the movie’s funniest scenes.
The perversities, predilections and pitiless viciousness that drive “Savages” aren’t for the faint of heart -- and a provocative switcheroo in the third act will certainly draw mixed reactions -- but those who partake of the cinematic substances on offer are likely to catch a strong, if immediately forgettable, buzz.
Contains strong, brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and profanity throughout.