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.
Based on a graphic novel the violent tale revolves around Wes (James McAvoy) a meek 25 year-old office worker who hates his life. His boss berates him and he can’t even summon the balls to tell his slutty girlfriend to stop sleeping with his best buddy. But his world is suddenly rocked when Fox (Angelina Jolie)--a mysterious tattooed woman with a gun and a red sports car--takes him on the ride of his life. She takes him straight to The Fraternity a centuries old legendary group of hired assassins who live--and die--by their code: Kill one to save a thousand. Seems Wes’ long-lost father was a member who has just been whacked and he is now summoned to join up and unleash the inner killer in his genes. After a rigorous training regimen in which he is almost beaten to a pulp he emerges as the organization’s new golden boy and finds self-esteem in his new exciting alternative lifestyle. However the group’s enigmatic leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) may have other plans in store for Wes that he isn’t quite sharing at the moment. McAvoy simply rocks as the most unexpected action star of the summer and that includes a season so far that has given us the quirky offbeat castings of Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton in Marvel comic book franchises. McAvoy (Atonement) has buffed up for the part but still looks like the average Joe exactly why the audience has a rooting interest as he becomes a fish-out-of-water in a group of hit men (and women). You’re with him all the way. This unusual choice is exactly what sets the film apart and makes it a complete original in an over-worn genre. Jolie on the other hand is absolutely who you would expect to play the heavily tatted Fox. Guns blazing feet slamming the pedal gorgeous and talented at taking guys out (of life) Jolie’s a card-carrying member of a club previously thought only open to men. She exudes cool and has never looked hotter. Freeman is at his best. He commands the screen adding his usual stoic presence to the proceedings with a nice twist that lets him show a creepier side than we usually get. Other members of the “club” are competently played by ever-reliable Terence Stamp German-born bad guy Thomas Kretschmann and rapper Common who shows he can keep up with the big boys--acting and other-wise. Hiring the Russian director Timur Bekmambetov for a summer action flick like this might have seemed an odd choice but anyone who’s seen his Hollywood-style homebaked hits Night Watch and Day Watch would know this is a visual stylist with no current equal in the action genre. His English-language debut is vibrant and pulsating alive in every way and thankfully more comprehensible story-wise than his previous work if no less fantastic. You still have to completely suspend belief for complete enjoyment but it’s all worth it. Bekmambetov seems incapable of staging anything in an ordinary way taking routine set-ups and turning them into violent bruising works-of-art. There’s not a single uninteresting shot in the entire movie which moves like the speeding train we see in one of the film’s most imposing sequences. Scene for scene this may be the most visually inventive trail blazing film of its kind in light years. Bring on the sequel.