At first sight an Elmore Leonard kaleidoscope of clockwork Californian crime melodrama set in the drug underworld, Savages is clearly a return to form for director Oliver Stone, whose recent, more subdued work was clearly disappointing in view of the kinetic, dynamic filmmaking of his better, earlier films. It's not, mind you, a grand return to form: up to an extent, it's the exact sort of star thriller that recent Hollywood can still get away with, with meaty character roles for underused actors and based on a best-selling novel (by Don Winslow) that deals with the current issue of the "war against drugs". But Mr. Stone's handling injects both cynicism and edginess into it: starting out with a beheading and moving back and forth in time from there, the director discusses the double-edged sword and the double standards of the slippery slope between crime and justice, good and evil, in a landscape where black and white are no longer possible and survival requires accommodation with the other side.

     Nominal heroes Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), producers of the best marijuana in California, live in paradise on Earth with their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively), but find themselves in the sights of Mexican drug queen Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) and her cruel henchman Lado (Benicio del Toro), setting the stage for a bloody conflagration of violence that hinges upon, of all things, love and the desire of a better life. Nobody is innocent in this tale, everybody gives in at some point, and while Mr. Stone takes the opportunity to lay down the contrast between idealism (Ben's desire to use the profits of the drug operation to help the needy) and pragmatism (Chon's hardened awareness of people's inability to change the world), he is not always in control of his narrative or of his cast.

     There's never a sense of style over substance, but too many secondary characters and plots are left tantalisingly underdeveloped, and the initially bewildering choice of a grand finale plays right into Mr. Stone's preference for bungled-up reality over Hollywood fantasy (even while Savages' kinetic visuals play it up a lot throughout). There's a sense that the director tried to throw everything but the kitchen sink into it and not everything stuck; and while Mr. Kitsch is spot-on as ex-special forces man Chon and Ms. Hayek is appropriately voluble as the drug queen, Mr. Johnson never really finds his character, and Mr. del Toro and John Travolta (as a wily dirty DEA agent) play it far too broadly. The result is a film that thankfully proves there's still a flame burning inside Mr. Stone after a fair bunch of below-par films (none more so than the dismal Wall Street sequel Money Never Sleeps), but that the halcyon days of Natural Born Killers or Talk Radio aren't necessarily coming back.

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Demián Bichir

Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Mr. Stone, from the novel by Mr. Winslow, Savages
Cinematography: Dan Mindel  (colour, processing by Deluxe, Panavision widescreen)
Music: Adam Peters
Designer: Tomás Voth
Costumes: Cindy Evans
Editors: Joe Hutshing, William Levy, Alex Márquez
Producers: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff (Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media and Dentsu)
USA/Japan, 2012, 131 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9, August 30th 2012


Popular Posts