Universal // 2012 // 142 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // November 20th, 2012
Things just got so out of control...
Oliver Stone abandons politics and revisits ultraviolence and decadence in Savages, his first feature since 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter) and Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) are best buds whose lives revolve around bud -- they've become millionaires developing and harvesting the most potent marijuana in the world. They've accomplished this thanks to volatile ex-SEAL Chon smuggling seeds from Afghanistan and peace-loving, philosophical greener Ben growing them.
Life is good, and it's made better by their beautiful sidekick, O (for Ophelia) (Blake Lively, The Town), who loves them both -- literally.
Of course, Utopia doesn't last forever, particularly in the homicidally competitive drug trade. A Mexican cartel run by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek, Frida) wants in on the guys' business. Ben and Chon want no part of this and decide to give up the ghost, take O, and disappear to some remote corner of the world.
But a cartel, like a lady, is not to be dissuaded, and Elena has a plan that will put the guys right where she wants them.
Here's the funny thing about Savages: While the film moves quickly, and there are plenty of plot twists, everything goes exactly where you'd expect it to go. Characters lie, cheat, double cross each other, and have hidden agendas, but there are few surprises.
Part of the problem is that the characters are sketched awfully simplistically and obviously, particularly Ben, Chon, and O. Ben's a one-man peace corps, using his wealth to bring hope to impoverished villages in Africa and Asia; Chon's the loose cannon who thinks with his fists (or guns or knives, or whatever's handy). It comes as no surprise when the reasonable Ben begins to do unreasonable things as the cartel makes his life difficult. Similarly, we know that O is going to form an unlikely bond with another character who's having daughter issues, something director Oliver Stone sets up so transparently, it's almost insulting to the audience. It's unfortunate that these three are drawn in such a shallow way; their relationship is supposed to be the crux of the story, but it just doesn't resonate, even with "daring" -- and gauzy -- scenes of the guys enjoying sex with O, together and separately.
At one point, O references the three of them in terms of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- "You know, that Paul Newman movie, from when he was alive, and with Robert Redford when he was a babe." Strangely, this sums up one of the major weaknesses of Savages: Kitsch and Johnson are not Newman and Redford (and Lively's no Katharine Ross), and O's cutesy mangling of the reference is grating, not endearing, much of like everything else she says and does; that she offers an inane voice-over doesn't help things. These three are not exactly Jules and Jim; they're not even Willie and Phil; they're just kind of dull and indulgent stock characters, and hard to care too much about. Plus, Lively's apparently dogged refusal to do a nude scene makes her free spirit a little disingenuous.
But ultimately, the fact that what is supposed to be the central relationships and catalyst for much of the action is less than compelling really doesn't matter. Savages isn't a movie about people; it's about the dehumanization of people. This has got to be one of the most disgustingly violent major studio/major director/major cast releases I've seen in a while.
Stone fills the screen with as much wanton gore as 10 Italian zombie movies. The lucky ones merely get their brains splattered with a bullet; other victims are beaten, mutilated, burned, raped, stabbed, blown up, dismembered, and in one horrifying scene, chained up, whipped, eye gouged, doused with gasoline, and set ablaze. It's thrilling, but it's also numbing.
Certainly, there are a number of tense scenes; the fact that virtually every character suffers (or inflicts, or both) bodily harm at one time or another keeps us guessing as to who's going to end up a victim. As such, Stone creates a solid sense of danger, and on a visceral level, this film works better than it should.
The fact is, if Savages hadn't been made by a director who already has a reputation, it would possibly be seen as yet another Tarantino knock-off (Inglorious Potheads!) -- one that takes some of the director's most obvious trademarks (flashy look, piles of violence, occasionally cool soundtrack) and ignores what makes his films special (wit, subtext, complex characters).
Aside from the impressive visuals, Savages has something going for it in the way of three satisfying supporting performances -- all by people old enough to be Lively's parents. Hayek is oddly sympathetic as the cold -- but not heartless -- Elena, offering much-needed magnetism every time she's on screen. As a vicious enforcer, Benecio Del Toro (Traffic) is a study in malevolence, as nasty a villain as has ever graced the screen. Then there's John Travolta (Face/Off) as a corrupt DEA agent with a dying wife and two young children. Even though it's a small role, Travolta reminds us why he's a star, offering a funny, quirky performance that blows his young co-stars off the screen whenever they're together; a scene in which he and another "seasoned" actor spar is one of the (nonviolent) highlights.
Savages (Blu-ray) comes from Universal sporting a dynamic 2.40:1/1080p transfer. This is a beautiful, vibrant image with excellent detail, black levels, and color. Similarly great is the immersive, DTS-HD surround audio, which captures subtle sounds and bombast with equal perfection.
The Blu-ray offers us the R-rated theatrical cut as well as an Unrated version, which runs 11 minutes longer. We also get a nice range of supplements: a commentary by Stone; a second commentary with a whole slew of people, including the producers, the production designer, writer Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow, who co-wrote the screenplay and is the author of the novel on which the film is based.
Additionally, there's a well-made, comprehensive "making of" featurette, "Stone Cold Savages," that features input from most of the cast and crew. We also get around 16 minutes worth of deleted scenes, as well as the now-requisite DVD copy and digital download.
Maybe we just expect more from Oliver Stone -- not "better," necessarily, just more. Love the guy's work or hate it, almost all of it contains at least a veneer of subtext, some complexity, and commentary, be it political or social.
Savages has no compelling subtext, it really doesn't comment on anything, and despite some convoluted plot machinations, it's awfully simple. It's ultimately a big, dumb action movie with enough gore to push it into exploitation territory, another take on the "one last job" trope that powers action movies great and dismal.
Anyone looking for "smart" entertainment or something thought provoking is going to be let down, but as far as big, dumb action movies go, this one is fine. While Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively serve as little more than window dressing -- necessary window dressing, but decorative all the same -- the quirky supporting performances are a joy, and things move at a nice and nasty clip. At over two hours, there's a bit of fat here -- Stone could have done with fewer scenes of the young leads philosophizing and eroticizing -- but the film never feels sluggish.
Savages is a hyperkinetic mess of a movie, a southern California nouveau-gothic horror story in which ultraviolence and visual flash trump character, plot, or logic. It's entertaining and intermittently exciting, and boasts strong work from Hayek, Travolta, and Del Toro, but it's not the sort of thing that anyone is going to be remembered for.
Sometimes gross, sometimes dizzy, but not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Cut
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* UltraViolet Download