A couple of Laguna Beach stoners go up against the Mexican Baja Cartel when their girlfriend is kidnapped in Savages, which could have been Oliver Stones return to form at least the over-the-top, bad-taste form of Natural Born Killers.
By ANN LEWINSON
Special to The Star
But Savages, based on crime writer Don Winslows viciously funny 2010 novel, merely continues Stones tepid streak.
Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are best friends who share a multimillion-dollar marijuana business and a girlfriend, O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively).
Ben is a botanical genius who spends his millions improving living conditions in the Third World, while Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL hardened by the horrors of Iraq, is the cynical muscle of the operation. O calls them the Buddhist and the Baddist; when the boys refuse to cut the Mexicans in on their operation, the Buddhist is going to have to learn to be bad.
The Mexicans have their brains and their muscle as well: Alex (Demián Bichir), a dapper lawyer who makes the boys an offer they cant refuse, and Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a thug who uses a landscaping business as cover. They work for drug queen Elena La Reina Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who is looking to solidify her position in a turf war headed over the border and has a daughter Os age (Sandra Echeverría).
It sounds familiar and it is, but it didnt have to be. Winslows novel, with its derision of consumerist decadence, critique of Western interventions overseas (in which neo-cons and Bono have a rough equivalence), wise Latinas struggling for respect, and postmodern playfulness (slipping in and out of screenplay mode) is anything but.
Its also, to use Os texting language, not just LOL but OMGYGHT (Oh My God You Gotta Hear This). But even Os edge has been polished off. Whom would you rather watch, a damsel in distress forced to eat pizza and watch reality shows (the movie) or a spoiled brat ordering her kidnapper to get her a pizza and a TV so she wont miss another episode of The Bachelorette (the book)? Its significant that the young man who provides her these things a fully realized character in the novel doesnt even have a name here.
Its like Birth of a Nation with Mexicans: Del Toro, playing up every greasy stereotype this side of Speedy Gonzalez while sporting a poofy mullet, should be ashamed of himself. Hayek tries to talk tough while wearing one of Katy Perrys old wigs; only Bichir, a deserving Oscar nominee for last years A Better Life, survives with his dignity and his hair relatively intact.
Its left to the gringos to carry the movie, but the wattage emitted by Johnson (Kick-Ass), Kitsch and Lively is dim. They may be good-looking, but they arent movie stars after John Carter and Battleship, its the third strike for Friday Night Lights star Kitsch and Livelys lethargic narration is particularly painful.
O thinks of herself as Etta Place to Bens and Chons Butch and Sundance, but the bromance is never credibly conveyed. (Going NC-17 in the depiction of the books ménage à trois would have helped, but the movie, with a typical loss of nerve, cuts away.) Its left to John Travolta, as a DEA agent on the boys payroll, to give the film what little energy it has.
Winslows novel was written in consultation with co-screenwriter Shane Salerno and optioned before publication by Stone, so its a mystery why the movie came out so homogenized. But the greater mystery is what happened to Oliver Stone.
The old Oliver Stone would not have turned down the chance to show a poor schnook who has run afoul of the cartel being smacked around in a piñata. The old Oliver Stone would appreciate the irony that two generations of real-life criminals have grown up quoting the lines he wrote for Al Pacino in Scarface. The old Oliver Stone would have wallowed in the moral gray areas, critiqued the American Dream and made us feel guilty just for watching.
The new Oliver Stone? Hes not even one toke over the line.
What others are saying
• Christy Lemire, The Associated Press: A lurid, pulpy film noir with an erotic, even dreamlike California beach vibe. Its an intriguing contrast, this mixture of a genre and an aesthetic, but the result is the most explosively poppy film Stone has made in a long time.
• Todd McCarthy, the Hollywood Reporter: The pronounced superiority of the veteran supporting players to the young actors playing the central romantic threesome throws the balance off and leaves a high-caliber-sized hole in the middle of a film that should nonetheless play well to blood-and-guts- inclined men internationally.
• Edward Douglas, ComingSoon.net: Savages could have been an absolute mess. Instead, Stone creates a gritty and violent modern crime-thriller thats both literary and lyrical at the same time, even if its plagued by Stone giving his actors too much freedom to overact.