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To anyone who has missed the Oliver Stone of Natural Born Killers and U Turn while wading through the more recent and conventional likes of World Trade Center and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Savages represents at least a partial resurrection of the director’s more hallucinatory, violent, sexual and, in a word, savage side. This intense and unavoidably gory adaptation of Don Winslow‘s wild best-seller about the incursion of Mexican drug cartel mayhem into the United States has been made in a jagged, darkly trippy style that well expresses the story’s tense uncertainties. But the pronounced superiority of the veteran supporting players to the young actors playing the central romantic threesome throws the balance off and leaves a high-caliber-sized hole in the middle of a film that should nonetheless play well to blood-and-guts-inclined men internationally.
Winslow’s 2010 novel — the prequel to which, The Kings of Cool, has just been published — is so vivid and propulsive that you can practically see a movie in your head while reading it. For all its insane violence and dizzying plot turns, the story spins on a fanciful but believable love triangle among Laguna Beach’s two most successful independent pot growers/dealers and their hedonistic free spirit of a girlfriend.
With all the pressure the guys endure when a Mexican crime family puts the squeeze on them, the center, represented by the love story, has got to hold; it should beguile, entice, turn you on and feel special, as in Design for Living or Jules and Jim. Unfortunately, the trio, impersonated by Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively, seem rather junior league, the Triple-A team, where All-Stars are required. They’re not bad, just not good enough when they have to tangle with the unbridled likes of John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek as assorted cohorts and adversaries.
Lively’s easygoing SoCal beach girl, commonly known as O (as in Ophelia, her birth name, and orgasm, a propensity for which she is well known), narrates the tale with noticeably less energy than the film itself possesses and an omniscience that makes no sense if you think about it. Within the first 15 minutes, she gets it on with both Chon (Kitsch), a hotheaded and hard-bodied former Navy SEAL, and sensitive save-the-world do-gooder Ben (Johnson), who’s the best botanist ever to turn his talents to designer weed. Living in an enviable oceanside crib, they make and distribute superdope for discerning patrons able to pay for it and live the great life as a result.
But while U.S. law enforcement has been persuaded to look the other way, such success attracts the notice of Elena (Hayek), a cartel queen whose losing battle with rival El Azul in Mexico has her looking for opportunities north of the border. Out of the blue, Chon and Ben receive an offer they’re not at liberty to refuse — to put their operation under Elena’s blood-soaked umbrella. And, just in case they’re thinking of cashing in and checking out, which they are, Elena’s American-based goon Lado (Del Toro) kidnaps O and assures them the worst will happen to her if they make one false move.
The script by Shane Salerno, novelist Winslow and Stone illustrates how, once infected with the cutthroat, when-in-doubt-kill-’em plague embodied in the drug lords’ m.o., it’s impossible to shake it; once you’ve crossed to the dark side, you can’t go back. The gangsters impose the rules of the game, and it’s instant Lord of the Flies: Everyone descends to the most brutal, elemental survival of the fittest level of human behavior, with no quarter given.
To save O from execution — held in a cage, she’s viewable from time to time on a computer feed — Chon and Ben are forced into a covert game of one-upmanship with their criminal bosses while still appearing to play by their rules. Through the auspices of their surfer/stoner financial whiz Spin (Emile Hirsch in a brief, amusing turn), they move their money around and, to raise the rest of the cash they need to bail out O, come up with an ingenious scheme they can’t get away with for long: robbing their bosses’ bagmen.
This ploy stirs intense internal suspicion within Elena’s organization, which is further disrupted by documents the boys procure from frantic DEA official Denis (Travolta), who’s compromised up to his disappearing hairline and often is forced to improvise to save his skin. Stone and his collaborators depart from the novel significantly in the film’s third act and smartly so, partly by expanding the Dennis role and especially by developing a propriety interest in the imperious Elena on behalf of the powerless O, creating some charged scenes and added emotional overlay (O’s flighty mother, a character in the book, was played by Uma Thurman, but the entire role was cut). The action-packed, Middle East war-style climax also has been gleefully toyed with to provocative effect.
But the story’s progression moves one’s interest and sympathies away from Chon and Ben, whose personalities are defined at the outset and never acquire further weight or psychological dimension. Although, as big-time drug dealers, they are technically criminals from the beginning, they certainly aren’t meant to be perceived that way by Winslow or Stone; Chon’s anti-social, shoot-first/ask-questions-later impulses are seen to stem entirely from his combat experiences in Afghanistan, while Ben is a latter-day hippie whose well-meaning urge to save the world marks him as “the soft one” in the eyes of Lado, always on the lookout for an opponent’s weak spot.
As Chon’s all-action personality is readily apparent on the surface, Kitsch comes off reasonably well in his characterization of a battle-hardened vet who would seem to harbor a death wish. Forced to make a drastic transition from idealistic greenhouse genius to brutal, if unwilling, killer, Ben is by far the more conflicted and complex role, but his inner torment takes a back seat to the sweep of plot and action; he ends up being not very interesting, something for which Johnson is unable to compensate. In a role that, if one could pick any actress from the history of cinema, would have been played most ideally by Tuesday Weld, Lively doesn’t really live up to her name, coming off more slack than slacker. Crucially, a chemistry among the three leads never takes hold to seduce the audience into investing deeply in the privileged moments of the trio’s inevitably short-lived romantic high.
As if receiving charges of electric current at regular intervals, Travolta is manic and most amusing as the government agent forced into ethical and practical contortions to stay afloat; Del Toro entertainingly showboats while demonstrating dozens of ways to convey diabolical menace; and Hayek synthesizes ultimate elegance, motherly concern and complete ruthlessness as the Lady Macbeth of the Mexican drug world.
Stylistically, Stone summons up many of the visual and aural tropes of his creatively assaultive works of 15 or so years ago, to mostly strong effect; there’s solarization and blood-soaked saturation, alternation from color to black-and-white and film to computer/video images, altered state-suggestive editing, warping of time and anything else he can think of — all appropriate to the occasion. The re-creations of cartel charnel house torture are gruesome and pushed to the limit of mainstream acceptability.
The film is technically sharp, and the highly varied score — a mix of original and source music — is marked by the exceptionally dramatic use of the opening of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in two key scenes.
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