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.
When James Cameron changed the landscape of 3D stereoscopic filmmaking with his groundbreaking blockbuster Avatar I'm sure he still had misgivings about the final product. He couldn't include a scene in which eggs are thrown towards camera. There was no moment where Jake smokes marijuana and blows it off screen. Not a single character pleasured themselves and released out into the audience. Maybe in the sequel.
Thankfully for those looking for that immersive corporeal experience there is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas a foul hilarious and surprisingly heartwarming holiday experience that utilizes its eye-popping technology to take gross out humor to a new level. If you're not already on board with the previous stoner antics of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) from White Castle and Escape from Guantanamo Bay it's safe to say that 3D Christmas won't be roping you back into the series but for fans the movie steps up the franchise's game. Writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg take the three years since the last film into consideration putting the duo on opposite ends of the maturity spectrum only to have them reunite for a zany Christmas adventure. The results are rather touching.
We pick up with Harold now a suit-wearing Wall Street type bending over backwards to make Christmas perfect for his ball-busting father-in-law (Danny Trejo). Adding to the stress are his wife Maria who is anxious to have a baby despite the couple's inability to do so and his next door neighbor Todd (Tom Lennon) who would do anything to be Harold's best friend. Kumar is his antithesis—burnt out baked and broken up over the termination of his relationship with Vanessa. When a mysterious package addressed to Harold lands on Kumar's door (he hasn't lived there in years) the medical school dropout takes a ride to his former cohort's white picket fence house. The package is exactly what you'd expect: an enormous joint. Admitting he doesn't smoke any more Harold throws the weed away—only to see it magically return and burn down his father-in-law's Christmas tree.
Like its predecessors Harold & Kumar 3D takes off from its wacky catalyst and shoots directly (and without regret) into outer space. Without hesitation Harold and Kumar's quest for a Christmas tree takes them from a terrifying tree yard run by RZA a coked-out Christmas party thrown by the teenage kids of New York's deadliest gangster and a holiday stage show starring—you guessed it—Neil Patrick Harris. The movie piles on gags and inside jokes (the movie winks at the camera with Star Trek and White House cracks) but few fall short thanks to their clever execution and two characters Cho and Penn help us give a damn about. Even in its lamest moments—Todd's baby finding her way into a variety of drugs is one of the movie's running gags—Harold & Kumar 3D still pops. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson squeezes every bit of silliness out the movie's various scenarios adding a dash of nostalgia for fans and making the entry worthy of the original. Even Harris outdoes himself (and the man road a unicorn in movie #2) riffing off his own homosexuality which we learn is really just a play to get more woman to take their clothes off. Obviously.
If the traditional holiday classics haven't been quite your style Harold & Kumar 3D is a more-than-worthy addition to the Christmas movie pantheon delivering on warm and fuzzy friendship cliches while filtering it through bathroom humor and bong water. By the time Harold and Kumar trip and turn themselves into claymation you'll either be cackling with laughter or on the way out of the theater. Me? I was high on it.