Every once in a while a movie comes along that absolutely blows you away and Oliver Stone's Savages from Universal Pictures is just one of those movies. From the opening scene to the last this is a movie that grabs you by the throat and never lets up. It's smart, sexy, fun and dangerous and the cast and director seem to be in total sync from the first frame. Ostensibly a love story set in the drug culture and underworld of the Southern California illegal marijuana trade, "Savages" is based on the novel by Don Winslow and tells the story of two drug kingpins (and best friends) named Cho (Taylor Kitsch), a hardcore warrior and a product of his military training and service in the Iraq war and Ben (Aaron Johnson) a peace-loving, philanthropic product of the sixties who just happens to be the best pot grower in North America. The two share a house and their affections with O (for Ophelia) played by Blake Lively with whom they are both in love and thus this love triangle becomes the basis for the story.
When a ruthless drug lord named Elena(played by a phenomenal Salma Hayek) wants to become partners with the successful California drug kingpins and is then rebuffed by the pair, all hell breaks loose when she sends her crew lead by a menacing Benecio Del Toro to kidnap O and hold her until the pair agree to become her partners in the drug trade. John Travolta plays Dennis, a thoroughly corrupt federal agent who is working both sides against the middle in an attempt to squeeze as much money (and glory) out of the situation for himself.
This is a total return to form for Stone who has had some missteps in recent years, but seems to have gotten his groove back and then some with a film that finds him comfortable in his wheelhouse of hard R-rated action and drama. Not since his legendary "Scarface" has Stone created such dread and tension as he does in key moments in this film. Hell, there is even a chainsaw scene thrown in for god measure.
All of the actors seem totally on their game with Aaron Johnson (virtually unrecognizable from his titular role in "Kick Ass") a total standout as the sensitive and passive Ben whom we see virtually transform before our eyes as events force a change in his demeanor and attitude. Taylor Kitsch proves why he is a leading man in the making despite the box office disappoints of both "John Carter" and "Battleship." His slow burn intensity and sudden bursts of violence coupled with his carefully hidden sensitive side are a thing to behold as he holds the screen in every scene in which he appears. Blake Lively showcases her range in a smaller, yet key role as the pawn in the middle of this cat and mouse game.
In a film loaded with terrific performances, Bencio Del Toro as the hit man with a handlebar mustache is one of the key villains of the movie and gives an unforgettable performance that mixes menace and humor in equal measure. John Travolta appears to also be having a great time under Stone as he chews up the scenery and shines in a unforgettable kitchen scene with Del Toro in the latter part of the movie.
Surprisingly it is Salma Hayek who absolutely captivates as they evil, yet utterly complex drug lord Elena who is at once a homicidal cold-hearted killer and a sensitive and caring mother to her estranged daughter. You cannot take your eyes of her when she is on screen and despite her small stature and incredible beauty strikes fear into her henchmen and the audience. An Oscar nomination would be well-deserved for this career-redefining role that will change how she is perceived from now on.
Ultimately though it is Oliver Stone who must get the lions share of the credit for creating his new masterpiece. A film that pushes the envelope in so many ways, yet never fails to be an entertaining and fun movie to watch. "Savages" is a movie that will exhilarate and entertain, repulse and captivate and is an instant classic in the Oliver Stone cannon of work.
Starts Friday, July 6 nationwide (Rated R) 130 mins.
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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.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.