Savages - Flawed but an Entertaining Crime Thriller

                        Oliver Stone, often termed as a controversial director, makes his welcome return with the straight-forward, non-political film "Savages." Based on Don Winslow's novel, the movie doesn't break much new ground in the genre but offers a volatile mixture of violence, heroism, and amorality that is compulsively watchable. After the catastrophic historical film Alexander (2004), Stone has spent the past decade working entirely on films of below-average standards (World Trade Center, W, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and if Savages is the best of them so far, it is largely because it feels so fully focused and all of a piece. 

                       Ophelia or O, the narrator of the story, says at the beginning that "It's that kind of a story where things got so out of control." The same quote is at times seems applicable to the plot. The movie runs amok with several narrative dead spots and a convoluted introductory sequences (obviously modeled after those in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino). With its sense of vivid, pulpy grandeur 'Savages' is not a great film, but it has chunks of a great film fused together by a rude blast of cinematic energy. 

        Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a peace-loving, environmental loving guy. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben's volatile partner is an ex-Navy SEAL (and an emotionally battered one), who likes to get nasty when their clients do the same. Conjointly, Ben and Chon have built up a vast business by deriving Afghanistan Cannabis seeds that are exponentially more strong than the competition's. O or Ophelia (Blake Lively), the carefree rich girl, is their mutual love object. The spooky beach girl is the story's narrator and she sees the two of them as being one big man and the three has an very unusual relationship that never hits so much as a minor snag of jealousy or competition. 

                Their dream-like life soon fades away, when Ben and Chon turn down the representatives of Baja cartel, Mexico, after consulting with a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta). The Mexican cartel led by drug lord Elena (Salma Hayek), want to mass-market the duo's extremely strong product. The rejection of the offer makes her to unleash the psychopath deputy Lado (Benecio Del Toro) to kidnap O.  Ben and Chon at first, are desperate to do whatever Elena wants in order to get O back but when Elena forces a deal that will make O her prisoner for a year, they decide that more direct action is needed with Chon being able to deploy the skills he picked up in Afghanistan to rob one of Elena's safe houses of millions. From then on, the plot becomes increasingly twisted and leads to a ending, which many might flat-out hate it. 

                 In Savages, director Oliver Stone steers clear of any overt political grandstanding or judgment regarding marijuana, instead he is mostly in a observational mode that driven the drug-trade sagas he wrote,  in the 1980s, including Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). At the same time, he didn't conceive it as a blackly comic exploration that could have also taken to task the self-involved mindset of its heroes for ignoring the harsh realities just beyond the edges of their surreal existence. Stone along with his co-writers Winslow and Shane Salerno had tried to negotiate a middle ground between the two approaches, a move that can't help but weaken it dramatically. Visually, Stone avoids the stylistic excesses that ruined his previous movies. He returns to a more traditional approach and on few occasions shifts back to webcam and cellphone video or to black and white, which doesn't look jarring. 

                     Savages stumbles into relatively bland leads. Aaron Johnson (known for the title role in 'Kick-Ass') remains as a person of no influence, even though he talks about Buddhism. Blake Lively as Ophelia is expected to dominate the whole movie, but she falls flat except in the final reels. Taylor Kitsch as Chon conducts himself better than what he did in "John Carter" and "Battleship." Del Toro as the sociopath Lado is frighteningly remarkable. His presence electrifies the movie; he is amusing as well as ruthless and looks murderously unstable even when he's not shooting guys in the kneecaps. Salma Hayek as the crime boss is quite memorable with a will of iron that nevertheless has at least one soft spot after all. Both Hayek and del Toro, gives big, scene-stealing performances and earn our interest and empathy even while committing heinous acts. As a corrupt DEA agent, John Travolta has an amusing and pungent small role.

                     With a running time of 141 minutes, Stone's Savages gets big charge out of the scenes involving the big action beats or the grotesque tortures devised by Lado as a way of extracting information or getting rid of the competition. The ending of the movie can be seen as a failure, but I think of it more as a sly commentary on the kind of stories American movies love to tell, and also on the nature of our appetite for those stories. 

                  Savages is deranged, dark and bloody. Despite its own weak spots, this might be Stone's first one  in a long time to hint at the peaks that he once regularly hit and and also the first to suggest that he could be climbing up to those heights in the very near future. It's also nice to see a profound R-rated film which counterbalances all these cheesy PG-13 or teen-friendly movies.



Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

Very nice review and as you rightly pointed out, this film was such a let down. I was expecting more it

Shrinidhi Hande said...

I didn't understand why they found it viable to wind up operations and escape instead of partering

Arun said...

@Haricharan, Thanks for the comment> I too expected more from Oliver Stone.

@Shrinidhi, Thanks for the comment. I think both Ben and Chon wanted to leave the drug business and the Baja cartel proves to be more ruthless than other gangs in the business.