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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps director Oliver Stone brings Don Winslow’s drug cartel drama, Savages, to theaters July 6. The film follows Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), as they run a homegrown marijuana business.
The pair not only share a company, but girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively), as well.
Business is booming until the Mexican Baja Cartel demands the trio to go into business with them. The head of the Baja Cartel, Elena (Salma Hayek), and her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), challenge the group until they eventually seek help from a dirty DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta).
This suspenseful cartel war film has received a rating of 79% among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes thus far, though the reviews were mostly split. Below, read a sampling of what critics had to say about the drama.
According to the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, “Savages represents at least a partial resurrection of the director’s more hallucinatory, violent, sexual and, in a word, savage side.”
The film, he says, is an intense and gory adaptation of the novel and has been made in a “jagged, darkly trippy style that well expresses the story’s tense uncertainties.”
McCarthy comments on the unbalance between the veteran actors and relatively young actors, but says the “high-caliber-sized hole” that is left in the middle of the film should nonetheless “play well to blood-and-guts-inclined men internationally.”
The young actors, he says, “seem rather junior league” compared to Travolta, Del Toro, and Hayek.
Glenn Kenny of MSN Movies wasn’t a fan of Stone’s work, commenting on the lack of speed throughout the movie: “I [have not] missed the Oliver Stone who takes two hours and ten minutes to tell a crime story that would/could have maintained a much higher level of interest at something like an hour and forty, but that Oliver Stone has never gone away.”
“I suppose the fact that they’re stoned a lot accounts for the fact that they’re slow, but that’s hardly a tolerable excuse,” Kenny says.
He agrees with McCarthy on the young actors in the film, writing: “The earnest kids are a bit of a drag, both in the character and the acting departments.”
New York Times critic A.O. Scott says that “Mr. Stone’s lush compositions and suave camera movements may surprise—and maybe offend—fans of Mr. Winslow’s lean, flinty prose, but the sumptuousness of the movie is among its chief delights.”
Some of Stone’s familiar tics are evident in the movie, Scott observes, “notably his impatience with any single format or color scheme.”
Of Stone’s style, he says, “that collage and rapid-fire editing have become more common (and less interesting) cinematic features, he turns out to have been a classicist all along.”
Scott describes Savages as a “daylight noir, a western, a stoner buddy movie and a love story, which is to say that it is a bit of a mess.” The movie is, however, a lot of fun.
Of the stoner aspect of the movie, Scott says “the thing about spending time with potheads is that if you’re not stoned yourself, it can get kind of dull, and Ben and Chon, cool as they are, are not always scintillating company.”
Karina Longworth of the Village Voice says, “with Stone focusing on the human and fiscal politics of California’s twin pot economies, one quasi-legal and the other criminal—a split that the film suggests can only last for so long.”
Longworth finds the film at times repetitive, noting the repetition of the characters calling themselves “savages.” She is also not a fan of the narrator, played by Lively, saying that the actress “is both appropriately spacey and convincingly vulnerable, but as a point of identification, O. is too naïve and self-absorbed to care about, even at her most victimized.”
The film’s micro-time capsule is interesting, she adds, “but Stone, Winslow and co-screenwriter Shane Salerno’s indulgence in both above-the-law fantasy and the only-in-Hollywood notion that love trumps business are more potent than any point they’re trying to make about our real world.”
Although the film has a high supply of drugs, Longworth comments that soul is in short supply.
TIME critic Richard Corliss says the movie is “stuffed with torture, killings, a hand-impaling and an hour or so of craziness turned up to 11.”
Corliss says that Stone is back in the “bat-crap-crazy mode that made his Oscar-winning rap-sheet rep.”
Despite criticism about the plot or the performers, Corliss urges readers to “just watch the damn movie.”
He applauds cinematographer Don Mindel who “will backlight a face framed in gaudy red flora, and supersaturates the desert landscapes with a sickly glow that make them seem like nuclear testing grounds after the big boom.”
“Savages isn’t great cinema,” he says, “but it’s a very alive movie about people who probably ought to be dead.”
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune titles his Savages review “The good, the bad, and the boring.”
“Savages is a silly and self-serious movie,” he says and notes that the movie takes place where “life is beautiful, and Laguna Beach, Calif. is full of beautiful people nearly as beautiful as you.”
Phillips says the film “proves that marijuana cultivation, sales and distribution are the right way to live large and ménage a trios it through endless summer days and nights with your bromantic best pal and your special lady friend.”
“Savages has trouble making us care what happens to the beautiful people—the untouchables—at the center of the sun-baked fairy tale,” he says.
He agrees with one commenter on IMDB.com, who noted they were rooting for the cartels after viewing the movie’s trailer.
Associated Press critic Christy Lemire says that Stone’s film is “a lurid, pulpy film noir but with an erotic, even dreamlike California beach vibe.”
“Savages is darkly funny and stylishly violent but never reaches the overwhelming level of audiovisual assault of, say, Natural Born Killers,” Lemire comments.
She is more forgiving of Lively’s performance than other critics, saying “she’s called upon for more physical and emotional regors than before and, for the most part, rises to Stone’s challenge.”
Lemire notes that Stone clearly has a pro-drug or anti-war-on drugs message in the film: “Everything falls apart once controls start being exerted.”
“Savages is an enjoyable gratuitous romp, but with something to say,” she says.
Savages opens in theaters nationwide July 6.
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