“Savages” Movie Review

     There’s no doubt Oliver Stone’s new film “Savages” is aptly titled as it contains nothing in the way of a morality play.  There is no good versus evil here, as each character qualifies the film’s title with both their actions and their reasoning behind their actions.  I’m thinking Stone and his screenwriter, Shane Salerno (“Armageddon”), intended it that way.  The problem with “Savages” is there is nothing really within the story or characters that sets it apart from say “Pulp Fiction” or even Stone’s own “Natural Born Killers”.  Perhaps Stone set out to make a film which shows the realities of the media hyped drug cartels in Mexico and if he did than the film at least succeeds on that accord.  What you’ll find out from watching “Savages” is Mexican drug cartels are no scarier than their counterparts in the United States, contrary to what the papers would have you believe.

     I’m shocked I’ve sat through a film starring Taylor Kitsch for the third time this year (“John Carter”, “Battle Ship”).  In this film, his character is an ex Navy SEAL named Chon who provides the muscle and the street smarts in a large Marijuana growing and distribution operation in Laguna Beach, California.  His partner and best friend, Ben (Aaron Johnson), is a botanist who provides the brains behind a product said to contain over 30% THC.  This makes Ben and Chon’s product  the best in the world, or so says their live in girlfriend whom they share, Ophelia (Blake Lively), who also serves as the film’s narrator.  With a crooked DEA Agent (John Travolta) on their payroll, the duo live large and have what is seemingly an untouchable and lucrative operation.

     Then comes the Baja Cartel, who demands they become business partners.  The head of the Baja Cartel is a woman named Elena (Salma Hayek) and she sends her resident thug, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to essentially force Ben and Chon into dealing with them.  When Lado suspects they will run, he kidnaps Ophelia, forcing them to comply with Elena’s demands or else.  The film then veers into a who can outsmart who type second act where each side uses their resources to try and break the will of the other.  Stone spares nothing in the way of his depiction of brutal graphic violence throughout.  It’s clear the MPAA has come a long way since it slapped an “X” rating on “Scarface” in 1982.  That film doesn’t contain half the blood, gore, sex, and torture you’ll be treated to by watching “Savages”.

     By far the biggest bright spot in the film is the performance, not surprisingly, by Benicio Del Toro.  His Lado has savagery oozing from him.  In his many scenes, he speaks in an emotionless tone, all the while performing gruesome acts with the cold and calculating look of a serial killer.  In one scene, he shows the captive Ophelia a shocking video on his phone.  When she reacts by spitting all over his face, he laps up her saliva from his face and fingers as if he was licking off the tasty, greasy herbs and spices from fried chicken.  The contents of the video carried enough weight to satisfy him and he plays off Ophelia spitting in his face like it was a gift.  Sick, I know, but Del Toro really goes places with this character that many other actors would not have achieved.  In a better film, Del Toro  would’ve flourished even more, but the average plot holds the entire thing back.

     Neither of the film’s main characters really shine in any given scene.  Kitsch has worn out his welcome and comes across as neither tough or believable.  Johnson is descent and is definitely right for the role, but the whole three way thing with Lively proves to be more of a distraction than a viable plot device.  Travolta has a bit of fun in his scene with Del Toro, but other than that he makes no real impact.  Hayek at first comes off tough as nails, but how can she be the leader of the biggest drug cartel in Mexico, yet show so much weakness at a crucial point in the story?  Fortunately for her, Del Toro proves to be the real savage.

     Stone seems content with directing this by the numbers and that’s a shame.  If anyone has the ability to take a script like this and set it apart, it would be him.  For some reason, “Savages” is missing all of the creative flair Stone is most famous for.  Everyone of his characters are high on something every minute of the film, yet we never get a sequence depicting the character’s feelings or thoughts the way we have in his other films.  Think Charlie Sheen’s memorable first puff in “Platoon” with Jefferson Starship’s “White Rabbit” playing in the background, or simply think of every scene in  “Natural Born Killers”.  “Savages” is missing that key ingredient to set it apart from your average crime film and because of that, all your getting is the film equivalent of the “Walmart” drugs the characters in the film frequently speak of.  Is this film solid?  It is, but no one will ever bring it up when recalling Stone’s best films, which to me meant watching something that was painfully average. GRADE: C