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.
Suburban teens should help cut "Urban Legends: Final Cut" the biggest slice of box office pie this weekend.
"'Urban Legends' can actually do double digits," one insider observes. "It'll be nice to see that again, won't it?"
"Urban," an R-rated horror sequel opening from Columbia Pictures at 2,539 theaters, is heading for first place with $12-13 million.
"Teens, particularly, have to be hungry for something to go see," says a distribution executive. "I think it's got a shot at $12 million."
Directed by John Ottman, "Urban" stars Jennifer Morrison.
Second place should go to DreamWorks and Columbia's critically-acclaimed "Almost Famous," which will expand to about 1,200 theaters in its second week. The R-rated comedy drama should do $7-8 million.
"They're in theaters where it ought to do business," a source says of the film's strong launch at 131 theaters last weekend. "They're upscale, limited, big city (theaters) and, boy, if this movie doesn't do it there, where will it do it? This weekend will be the first indication of whether the movie plays in the heartland."
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, "Famous" stars Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand.
Driven by "Urban" and "Famous," the weekend should be a big improvement over last weekend when key films only took in about $47.4 million.
"Well, that's like being the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas," laughs one insider. "It'll be better than the worst weekend in three years!"
Warner Bros.' reissue of its R-rated 1973 horror classic "The Exorcist" should turn enough ticket buyers' heads to finish third. Arriving at 664 theaters, it should nail down $6-7 million.
Directed by William Friedkin, "Exorcist" stars Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair and Max von Sydow.
Universal and Beacon Pictures' PG-13-rated comedy "Bring It On" should drop one peg to fourth place in its fifth week. Last weekend "Bring" did $5.1 million and was only off 25 percent. If it takes another 25 percent drop, it will do about $4 million.
"Bring," which only cost Universal about $10 million, has grossed over $51 million and is heading for $60 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peyton Reed, "Bring" stars Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dusku, Jesse Bradford and Gabrielle Union.
Universal's R-rated psychological thriller "The Watcher" should slip four slots to fifth place in its third week with $3-4 million.
"Watcher," which Universal reportedly picked up from Interlight for only $5 million, has grossed over $17 million and is heading for $25 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joe Charbanic, "Watcher" stars James Spader, Marisa Tomei and Keanu Reeves.
Warner Bros. and Castle Rock Entertainment's R-rated action comedy "Bait" should sink four pegs to sixth place in its second week with a gross that's also in the $3-4 million range.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, "Bait" stars Jamie Foxx.
USA Films' R-rated dark comedy "Nurse Betty" was fourth last weekend with $4.7 million, a drop of 35 percent. If it falls 35 percent this time around, it should place seventh with about $3 million.
Universal owns "Nurse Betty," having acquired it when the studio took over PolyGram. Universal turned the specialized picture over to USA Films to market and distribute.
Directed by Neil La Bute, "Nurse" stars Morgan Freeman, Renee Zellweger, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear.
The weekend's other wide opening, Fox Searchlight Pictures' R-rated romantic comedy "Woman On Top," won't come in anywhere near the top of the chart.
"Woman," arriving at 1,000-plus theaters, appears headed for eighth place with a modest $2-3 million.
Directed by Fina Torres, "Woman" stars Penelope Cruz.
Filling out lower rungs: "Space Cowboys," "The Cell," and "What Lies Beneath."
This weekend will also see 20th Century Fox's limited release of its PG-13-rated drama "The Dancer" in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Fred Garson, "Dancer" stars Mia Frye and Josh Lucas.
Lions Gate Films' R-rated drama "Under Suspicion" opens exclusive engagements in New York and L.A.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins, "Suspicion" stars Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman.
MGM's release of United Artists' PG-rated musical drama "The Fantasticks" opens exclusively in New York, L.A. and San Francisco.
Directed by Michael Ritchie, it stars Joel Grey and Barnard Hughes.