Review: “Savages”

Rule number one when going head-to-head with a Mexican drug cartel: don’t lose your head.

Director Oliver Stone has been known for making some pretty hard-hitting films over the years, including “Natural Born Killers,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Lately, though, the man has fallen to the ranks of an average director.

I’ve never been a big fan of his work, but I was hoping “Savages” would be Stone’s return to form. I hate when great directors get older and start to lose their touch (see: John Carpenter). The film, however, ends up being a mixed bag.

“Savages” is the story of Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), their shared girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively) and their booming drug business. After creating a quality stash of marijuana, Ben sets up a full business in Southern California and uses his best friend, and ex-soldier, Chon as his muscle. Ophelia, or “O” as she likes to be called, doesn’t do much of anything other than drugs and the two of them. The three of them seem to be happy until the Mexican cartels come up north and threaten their mostly violence-free setup. When negotiations break down, the head of the cartel (Salma Hayek) has her top henchman (Benicio Del Toro), kidnap O. This leads the boys on a wild rescue mission that tests their relationship with each other and O.

I can’t think of much worse ways to start a film off than to have Blake Lively unleash several minutes’ worth of narration. Not only is it kind of lazy, but even half of the lines she’s delivering are rough. Not a great start.

The film does eventually pick up about 15 minutes in and things finally get under way, but there was defnitely a bad taste left in my mouth.

“Savages” isn’t the action film one might think based on the trailer, but it unleashes heavy amounts of violence in small doses. Torture scenes, explosions and assassinations permeate the film and range from exhilirating to borderline nausea.

The man who is guiding a lot of those tense scenes is Benicio Del Toro’s character, Lado. The audience is introduced to this madman as his hit squad “lawn service” is visiting a dirty lawyer’s house. It doesn’t end well. Del Toro plays the character as sort of an Anton Chigurh with the viciousness of a Mexican cartel. His scene with the lawyer and a later one with John Travolta (who seems to be loving his role) are both filled to the brim with tension.

Although the veteran actors in the film (Hayek and Demian Bichir included) do their best to work with the script, there are simply too many characters and the film doesn’t have time to work on everybody. It’s sad because reports indicate that two of the film’s minor storylines were completely cut from the film already just to make room for the final product. The well-established actors can fend for themselves in the film, but the trio of protagonists suffer the most. Aaron Johnson does what he can with the little room he is given while Kitsch and Lively try to re-define “paper thin” with the help of a weak script. It probably doesn’t help that O is written as a very unsympathetic, annoying character from the start. At least Chon is fairly likable.

Unfortunately, even a director like Oliver Stone is unable to piece it all together in the end. Instead he signs off on one of the dumbest endings in recent memory, which put the nail in the coffin for me. “Savages” could have been a great crime thriller with a little pulp, but there is too much junk mixed in with the good stuff to really enjoy it.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

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