Savages - movie review

Prepare to pass the Dutchie; Oliver Stone has some mellow cinematic thrills for you. The operative word being "mellow".

Yes, the lauded director has shacked up on Laguna Beach and surrounded himself with pretty young things in his adaptation of Don Winslow’s drug-fuelled and adrenaline-packed crime saga. The story follows the fate of philanthropist pot grower Ben (Aaron Johnson), his ex-military muscle partner Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and their shared slice of sunshine, the ominously named Ophelia (Blake Lively). The trio are living the, ahem, high life, basking in their glorious ganja and the fabulous, organic life it affords them. That is until the vicious Mexican Baja Cartel decides they want more than a joint venture (sorry), and kidnap ‘O’ as part of their hostile takeover. Cheech Ben and Chong’s crooked cop friend Dennis (John Travolta) can’t offer much help, so they’re obliged to suit up their inner savages.

Where Winslow opens his book with a simple: “Fuck you,” (really), Stone opts for flashes of chainsaws and carnage. Nice.

But then begins Lively’s turgid voice-over. Now I’m all for an unreliable narrator, so her sultry declaration – “Just because I'm telling you this story... doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it,” – proves intriguing. Too quickly, however, the narration turns laughable, and not in a good way. Case in point: when describing the men in her ménage-à-trois, she reveals of Chon:

“I have orgasms; he has ‘war-gasms’.”

There are no words.

Indeed, Savages struggles with its young cast. Kitsch’s battled-hardened warrior can’t quite manage to land a line, Johnson is given precious little to do except shake his dreads, and Lively limps along like Gossip Girl in lock up – never given the depth to consolidate her scene-stealing, skanky turn in Ben Affleck’s The Town. Thankfully Stone has more luck with his veteran cast, with John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek lending some sorely needed colour and pulpy fun to the film’s bloated 131 minute running time.

If any savagery is to be found in this all too tame effort, then Del Toro and Hayek are it. Part Grim-Reaper, part chastened cartel lackey, Del Toro wields a chainsaw and whips up some menace through sheer force of will. And when Lado is onscreen with Hayek’s Queen-pin Elena—all fierce fringe and fiercer temper—the film finally sparks into life. Together they strike the right balance of high stakes and histrionic humour. The same goes for Travolta, whose daffy DEA agent Dennis adds a frisson of Pulp Fiction fun to proceedings.

Which brings us to the Quentin Tarantino-shaped elephant in the screening room. One can only wistfully wonder what might have been if Tarantino had taken a pass at the script. Perhaps a more assured mix of ultra-violence and hijinks? The closest Stone gets is the film’s heist set piece, which impresses with its tense and kinetic brutality.

The rest of Savages, alas, is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. I won’t spoil the Calvin Klein ad of a coda, other than to underscore the schism between such an ad and the film’s title, which nicely illustrates Savages’ fatal flaw. This film goes about as deep and dark as a summer high. Sure there are flashes of mexploitation fun, but ultimately it’s just way too mellow, man.

Alice Tynan

Read our interview with Benicio Del Toro here on TheVine.

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