“Savages” has a saving grace that almost makes me forgive it for every corny line, disjointed scene and overwrought plot point, and that saving grace is the film’s manic energy injected by the madman we all know as Oliver Stone.
From its opening scenes, “Savages” begs to be different and misunderstood. The visual style goes from black to white to radiating with the California beach colors of blues and reds. The film can be slow and it can be fast. It wants to be everything at once. At times, the movie’s own ambition can hinder it, but most of the time you just have to admire the damn thing for trying so hard and actually pulling off a Tarantino meets Tony Scott good time.
“Savages” follows two best friends who share a girlfriend (Blake Lively) and run the biggest and best marijuana business in California. One is an ex Marine (Taylor Kitsch) and the other is an idealist entrepreneur (Aaron Johnson). A cutthroat drug lord wants to take over their operation (played by Salma Hayek), but Ben (the idealist) and Chon (The Marine) refuse. They don’t want to be caught up in the drug war any more than they already are. However, once O (the girlfriend) is kidnapped, they must take matters into their own hands and go up against the cartel. Throw in Benicio del Toro as a crazy right hand man and John Travolta as a damaged and corrupt DEA agent, and what you have is one the craziest films of the year … we told you this movie wanted to be different.
The two best aspects to “Savages” are the performances and the film’s actual look. Both Kitsch and Johnson step up to the plate and hit home-runs with their lead performances. With less experience than the rest of the cast and with their age, one would think their performances would have been a little less sure. However, Stone has always had good luck with young actors and he turns them both into star performers here.
The pros in the film are equally as good. In fact, they are really the glue that holds the film together. The standout of “Savages,” by far, is Travolta. He creates a complicated character that earns both our hate and sympathy in the limited screen time he has. After all these years, he still has charisma, and this film only makes one wish he were spending more time in the movies these days and less time in the headlines.
Del Toro is crazy and layered as always. At this point, nothing less should be expected of the man. He is always at the top of his game. Hayek, despite seeming like a terrible choice for the villain, manages to do quite well here, and Lively proves again that she is a deeper and better actress than her limited TV pedigree suggests.
The film also looks unforgettable, from the way the beaches of California are shot, to Stone’s ADD-like direction. He never goes too far with his mania, but injects just enough of it into “Savages” to make the experience just plain out there in a good way. The look of the film has clearly been stressed and fretted over down to the very last detail, because every scene has a new feast for the eyes.
“Savages,” alas, is not all rainbows and butterflies. In shooting for his most mainstream vehicle yet, Stone simply drives himself further into cult status (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Besides a handful of just plain corny lines clearly meant to work better in a trailer then an actual movie, the script’s mania can work against itself many times over. The kinetic energy of the film can be lost when “Savages” gets distracted by its own characters. Del Toro and Hayek’s characters are given back stories that feel unnecessary and weigh the picture down along, with a slew of other details that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. While many scenes, like one with Travolta and his dying wife, are pleasurable and fantastic on their own, they don’t fit into the larger picture too well. What should’ve been a slim and fast and furious experience ends up being a two and half hour film (with a final ten minutes that should’ve definitely been cut).
I’m sure, however, you’re all waiting to hear one thing and one thing only: politics. Stone is known for his outspoken criticisms of everyone from Bush to Obama and for his admiration of dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Well, folks, “Savages” is Stone’s least political film. Stone merely uses the War on Drugs as a backdrop for the story and commences to tell one action packed yarn. Being the director he is, however, he can’t help from getting distracted and making one crazy weird little film that stands out more than it follows the mainstream.
The Blu-ray combo pack from Universal is a must own for fans of the film. It provides a slew of deleted scenes and a five-part look into the making of the film. All of these are must watch. The discs also provide an unrated version of the film and a commentary track from Stone.
“Savages” may not have reached the greatness it sought, but it inhabits its own small corner of the sandbox and ends up being something perhaps better then great: “Savages” is different and crazy and new. It pushes you into a world unfamiliar to most, from its excessive violence to its drugs, to two men sharing one girl. “Savages” tries for something unique and succeeds. It end up being its very own animal.