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3 reviews, 6 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Everybody Must Get Stoned"
4 stars

After making his directorial breakthrough in 1986 with the one-two punch of "Salvador" and "Platoon," Oliver Stone carved out a career for himself as the man behind some of the most daring and audacious commercial films of his era. "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors," "JFK," "Natural Born Killers," "Nixon," "Any Given Sunday"--these were bold, controversial and visionary works produced at a time when such things were generally considered to be the exception to the Hollywood and no matter what you may have thought about the films themselves, it cannot be denied that when you came out of them, you knew that you had just seen a Movie in all its risky glory and not just another inflated television episode of the kind that had begun clogging the multiplexes in greater and greater numbers. However, after the gargantuan critical and commercial failure of "Alexander," his 2004 epic retelling of the life of Alexander the Great, he emerged from the wreckage apparently feeling unduly chastened and determined to prove to Hollywood that he could be a good boy and make films without the wild flourishes that had come to define his past efforts. The subsequent films--"World Trade Center," "W." and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"--all featured the kind of potentially controversial material that he had made his career by tackling but all three demonstrated an almost ridiculous degree of restraint that undercut whatever points he may have been hoping to get across and while they might have shown that he could be trusted again after the debacle of "Alexander" (a bad movie, to be sure but an Oliver Stone film through and through and one that I would rather watch despite, or possibly because, of its lunacies than a blandly formulaic work like "World Trade Center" any day of the week), the end results were so forgettable that I bet that those of you reading this had probably forgotten about at least one of them until I mentioned it here.

With his latest film, "Savages," the Oliver Stone of old returns with a vengeance with this brutally violent and morally ambiguous action-drama involving a couple of freelance dope dealers, the woman that they both love (and who responds in turn) and the violent Mexican drug cartel with whom they become involved in a dark and extremely bloody battle for survival. Eschewing incisive political commentary for the kind of giddy B-movie trashiness that he brought to his cheerfully sleazy and wildly underrated 1997 sleazefest "U-Turn" and more than makes up for the blandness of his recent films by packing enough bad behavior into its 133 minutes to fuel an entire slate of ordinary films. The results aren't perfect and those who have never warmed to his bombastic approach in the past are unlikely to find that much has changed in the ensuing years but for everyone else, ""Savages" will come across like the work of a real filmmaker and not merely the uninspired effort of someone trying to get a movie in the can in the quickest and least painful or controversial manner imaginable.

Based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Don Winslow, "Savages" tells the story of a pair of high school buddies who have pooled their respective skill sets together into use in the drug trade. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a hotheaded former Navy SEAL who returned from duty in Afghanistan with a cache of high-quality marijuana seeds while Ben (Aaron Johnson) has deployed his double majors in botany and business to cultivate and market strains of dope with an almost unheard-of THC content that wins them a loyal customer base willing to pay top dollar for their product. The two buddies have different approaches to their business--Ben is sort of like the Bill Gates of ganja and plows a good chunk of his share of their fortune into altruistic concerns like providing money for schools and wells in impoverished lands while Chon is more concerned with getting nasty with anyone who dares to stiff them in regards to their money. One thing they do have in common is O (Blake Lively), the flighty beach bunny who is both our narrator (though one who is perhaps unreliable to the point of not being alive) and the girlfriend of both--she sees the two of them as being one big man and the three make their unusual relationship work in a manner that suggests what "Jules & Jim" might have been like if it had included more drug dealing.

This hedonistic paradise--or at least as hedonistic as it can get when the girl involved clearly has a "no nudity" clause in her contract--is eventually interrupted when the representatives of a violent Mexican drug cartel led by the fearsome Elena (Salma Hayek) come a-calling with an offer that they probably should not refuse to acquire their boutique operation and all that it contains in a three-year deal that will offer them protection and the promise of massive wealth in exchange for a 20% cut. In terms of squeeze plays made by fearsome drug cartels--especially those who enjoy chopping the heads off of their rivals and broadcasting the carnage on the Internet--this is not the worst deal that could be made under the circumstances but neither of the guys is particularly interested; Ben is all for turning the business over to them entirely and getting out to work on other forms of green technology and Chon would just as soon take them out rather than give up a thing. Things are at a standstill until Elena discovers their weak spot--O--and while the guys are surreptitiously winding their operation down before skipping town with O to Indonesia, O is snatched from a final pilgrimage to the mall by Lado (Benicio Del Toro), Elena's brutal enforcer and a man so vile that yes, he does twirl his mustache from time to time. At first, the guys are willing to do whatever Elena wants in order to get O back but when Elena forces a deal that will make O her prisoner for a year, they decide that more direct action is needed with Chon being able to deploy the skills he picked up in Afghanistan to rob one of Elena's safe houses of millions and Ben using his to convince her that the robbery was caused by someone in her own organization. From this point on, the story becomes increasing twisted and involves such peripheral characters as a cheerfully corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), Elena's legal representative (Demian Bachir), her estranged daughter (Sandra Echeverria) and an ending about which I will say nothing except for the fact that many people are going to flat-out hate it.

After playing it safe with his last few films, "Savages" finds Oliver Stone once again swinging for the fences and as people who have been following his career over the years can no doubt attest, that is not always a good thing. The major flaw this time around is a question of tone. There are a couple of different ways in which Stone and co-writers Winslow and Shane Salerno could have approached the material--they could have used it to explore the realities of the increasingly violent Mexican drug cartels and the continued failures of the so-called war on drugs or it could have been conceived as a blackly comic exploration of same that could have also taken to task the self-absorbed mindset of its heroes for ignoring the harsh realities just beyond the edges of their dream-like existence. Instead, the film tries to negotiate a middle ground between the two approaches in a move that can't help but weaken it dramatically. On the one hand, there is a certain amount of political/social commentary to be had here and there(such as the notion of using techniques learned in Iraq to fight the drug wars back home) but since that isn't the major thrust of the film, such comments, when they are made, wind up coming across as more gratuitous than they would have had they actually been allowed to dominate the proceedings. On the other hand, there are plenty of opportunities for dark social satire to be taken here (which I understand the book does in spade) but Stone seems to want us to actually like these characters to the point that he pulls these punches as well and as a result, when O narrates the events in the most air-headed manner imaginable, it appears that we are meant to take her meanderings at least semiseriously instead of laughing them off as nothing more than drug-induced babble. The film stumbles in regards to its relatively bland leads--Johnson (perhaps best remembered for playing the title role in "Kick-Ass") is more or less a non-entity, Lively doesn't really get to do much of anything until the final reels except sit around in chains while fending off the depravations of Del Toro and while Kitsch at least acquits himself better than he did in "John Carter" and "Battleship" combined, his work here does little more than demonstrate once and for all that he is no Channing Tatum. Finally, I must once again point out that most audiences are going to be absolutely enraged with how the movie ends, so much so that I fully expect the word-of-mouth discussions regarding it to be almost as harsh as the ones regarding the finale of "The Devil Inside."

And yet, while "Savages" does stumble in regards to the big stuff, it still contains a lot of smaller stuff that I enjoyed a lot. Freed of working with any historical or socio-political agenda to speak of for the first time since the gloriously grubby "U-Turn," Stone is clearly having a blast making this film and that sense of fun and reckless energy can be felt throughout--this is the snappiest work that he has done in a long time and even though it clocks in at 133 minutes, the whole thing has the breakneck pace of a roller-coaster to the degree that it never feels as though it is running long. He seems to be getting an exceptionally big charge out of the scenes involving the big action beats or the grotesque tortures devised by Lado as a way of extracting information or getting rid of the competition--the few minutes of the assault on the safe house alone feature more excitement and crackerjack stunt choreography than the likes of "Battleship" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" combined. Perhaps recognizing that his lead characters were pretty but a little dull when all was said and done, Stone has populated the supporting cast with a group of strong actors who gleefully chew the scenery throughout in the best possible way--Del Toro is both fiendish and fiendishly amusing as the enforcer, Travolta is equally amusing as the sleazy DEA agent who is constantly trying to talk himself in and out of one deal or another and Hayek, in the best part she has had in a while, is quite memorable as the bewigged cartel head with a will of iron that nevertheless has at least one soft spot after all. (Speaking of soft spots, Hayek also receives an on-screen foot massage that, while not exactly integral to the plot, is enough to single-handedly transform most of the audience into instant foot fetishists.) Finally, while I know I have already spoke at length about how unpopular the ending of the film is going to be with most viewers, I have to admit that I sort of enjoyed it in a perverse sort of way, if only because of its utter audaciousness and because I can honestly say that I didn't see it coming.

Dark, deranged and very bloody, "Savages" is an example of an increasingly rare breed of film--a profoundly "R"-rated work that is aimed strictly at adults--and if nothing else, it deserves a certain amount of consideration simply because it isn't just another expensive comic-book movie, either figuratively or literally. It may be messy and ungainly in parts and it could probably use some slightly more charismatic people in the lead roles (at one point, our heroes compare themselves to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but based on the charisma levels they display here, they are Berenger & Katt all the way) but in its best moments, it really is something to see, even if more sensitive viewers are forced to do so behind covered eyes. More importantly, it helps to serve as a reminder that Oliver Stone, despite his own weak spots and unfortunate tendencies, is still one of the most captivating pure filmmakers working today when he is fully engaged in his work. "Savages" may not be among his best films but it is the first one in a long time to hint at the peaks that he once regularly hit and and the first to suggest that he could be reascending to those heights in the very near future.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22589&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/05/12 16:51:42
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User Comments

9/16/17 morris campbell entertaining but sordid at times 4 stars
7/27/13 Dee E. Travolta and Hayek are superb in this violent, but brilliant film. 4 stars
12/01/12 mr.mike Travolta is awful, and Del Toro overdoes the Mexican accent. Skip it. 2 stars
7/24/12 Mick Gillies Brutal and brilliant - Well worth a look at 4 stars
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  06-Jul-2012 (R)
  DVD: 13-Nov-2012


  DVD: 13-Nov-2012

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