The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.
It all begins in the quiet village of Hobbiton where Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) comes to visit his old friend Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) on his 111th birthday and talk about the ring Bilbo found many years ago. Gandalf discovers the ring is indeed the One Ring of Sauron-the Dark Lord who once ruled Middle-earth with a terrible hand and has now risen to reclaim the Ring and rule again. Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) who learns how it gives its possessor unspeakable power and why it has now put his village in danger. Suddenly Frodo is thrust into a treacherous mission. With his hobbit friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Samwise (Sean Astin) Frodo leaves his beloved home to travel to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the Ring before it falls into the wrong hands. The journey is fraught with dangers--from the evil Ringwraiths Sauron's henchmen to the powerful wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army of horrible mutants called the Uruk-Hai. Luckily the hobbits receive help along the way from Legolas (Orlando Bloom) an elf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) a dwarf and the brave humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean) who all join the Fellowship of the Ring to protect Frodo and help save Middle-earth. But can they escape the lure of the Ring?
The all-star cast does an admirable job bringing the vivid characters of Tolkien's books to life. They've all managed to personalize their roles while dealing with the responsibility of portraying fictional icons. The film belongs to Wood who has proven he can carry a film (even at the tender age of 11...remember Radio Flyer?). His Frodo is so wrought with emotion and gets kicked around so much you feel like joining the Fellowship yourself just to help him out. Yet the hobbit's strong resolve is also quite evident. As Gandalf McKellen seems to personify the kindly wizard as if Tolkien had written the part for him and as the hyper-kinetic Bilbo Holm tries on big hairy feet and brings something new to his repertoire of characters. Other worthy performances include Bloom as the ultra-cool elf Legolas Astin as the stalwart Sam and Bean an underrated actor as the tortured Boromir who falls under the Ring's spell and sacrifices all to break from it. Some of the other characters didn't have the same amount of screen time but will more than likely be getting more play in the sequels including Mortensen's heroic Aragorn the man who would be king and his lady love the elven princess Arwen played by the beautiful Liv Tyler. It'll be interesting to see how the cast will handle their characters in the sequels to come.
Lord of the Rings looks nothing less than spectacular. What is even more impressive is the fact that director Peter Jackson decided to film all three of the books at one time no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. He uses all the technology and wizardry available to filmmakers today and thrusts the audience deep within the treacherous and exciting Middle-earth. From the diminutive hobbits to the Elven city Rivendell to the dark Mines of Moira it's all there. The amount of talent involved in creating the film--the conceptual artistry the production design the costumes--should be recognized come Oscar time. The pacing of the movie is excellent with enough down time and heartfelt if sometimes stilted speeches to counteract the incredible action sequences. You hardly notice the three hours passing by and it leaves you at the end wanting the quest to continue. The only one deterring fact is that the film really is for its die-hard fans. Certainly in the literary world Tolkien's story is the mother of all epic fantasies and Jackson has remained faithful to the material. In that the movie doesn't necessarily have the universal appeal of say a Harry Potter. Nonetheless Rings is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking.