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Savages: Because They Got High

by admin July 6, 2012 6:00 am
Savages: Because They Got High

It's not a popular opinion, but one of my favorite Oliver Stone movies is U-Turn, his little-seen 1997 crime picture starring Sean Penn that begins with a classic "man-walks-into-a-small-town" scenario before spinning off into some pretty bizarre territory. While it's not as consistent -- or even as coherent -- a film as Stone's best work (a list that, for me, includes Platoon, Wall Street and Nixon) what I enjoy about the movie is the lack of pretension and self-seriousness that often dooms his more "respectable" (i.e. awards-baiting) efforts. Based on a book by author and screenwriter John Ridley, U-Turn is an enjoyably sleazy and sultry thriller packed with great actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe and Jennifer Lopez back when she actually seemed interested in playing a character and not J.Lo) and told with a showman's visual brio. One can see the reflection of U-Turn in Stone's latest movie Savages and that connection may be why this was the best time I've had at an Oliver Stone joint since Al Pacino ranted and raved his way through Any Given Sunday, one of the all-time great guilty pleasure pictures.

Granted, Stone's track record over the past decade has been largely terrible -- the ambitious, but fatally miscast Alexander, the personality-free paycheck job World Trade Center, the muddled W. and the Wall Street sequel we'd all prefer to pretend never existed -- so Savages doesn't exactly have a lot of competition. And perhaps Stone should share the credit for the film's success with Don Winslow, who wrote the best-selling book (and co-penned the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno) upon which it's based. Certainly, Winslow gave Stone the kind of crackerjack narrative and compelling set of characters that one would have to work really, really hard to screw up. (Although it has happened before; after reading Scott Smith's incredible 2006 horror novel The Ruins in a single day, I couldn't imagine how the movie version could be anything less than great. Then I actually saw it...) And while some changes have been made to the book -- most blatantly and controversially in regards to its finale -- overall Stone seems to have done right by Winslow. You don't have to have read the book to enjoy the movie, but watching it will most likely make you want to run out and purchase the original text right away just to experience the story's twists and turns again.

Set largely in the infamous O.C. nabe of Laguna Beach, the film follows two clans of drug dealers that wind up launching a full-scale narcotics war. On one side, there's Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), two absurdly handsome and tanned twentysomething entrepreneurs who are running a profitable marijuana operation that's known for its stellar weed cultivated from seeds lifted from Afghanistan, where Chon spent a tour of duty during his Navy SEAL days. In addition to a beachside home and a profitable business, the two also share a girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively) or, as she introduces herself, O, a free-spirited California girl who has floated through life in a sea of privilege. The trio's unique living arrangement, not to mention their laid-back approach to the drug game, marks them as savages in the eyes of the Baja Cartel, a Mexico-based drug ring whose brutal business tactics and casual disregard for human life would seem to be more in line with the definition of that word. The cartel's reigning queen Elena (Salma Hayek) has decided to take over Chon and Ben's operation, so she sends her minions, lawyer Alex (Demián Bichir) and chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to inform them of the change in ownership. The duo attempt to stall the takeover and flee with O to a remote island in Indonesia, but Lado moves faster, nabbing their girl during her last mall shopping spree and making it very clear that her life depends on their obedience.

Understandably eager to keep O alive, Ben and Chon play along with the cartel's demands. But all the while they're planning their own counter-maneuvers, which involve, among other things, a daring attack on one of the cartel's supply lines (aided by Chon's fellow ex-SEALs), a plot to frame one of Elena's closest aides and the involvement of DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), who is actually playing all sides. Meanwhile, Lado is watching his own back, helping Elena maintain her power while also being open to more potentially beneficial deals. All of these plots and counter-plots inevitably build to a classic Mexican stand-off situation which Stone gives himself creative license to end in two different ways. While some may cry cop out (and they wouldn't be completely wrong about that), the double ending does feel of a piece with the way Stone uses O's dreamy, starry-eyed narration throughout the movie. (Sample line: "He didn't have orgasms -- he had wargasms." Totally ridiculous, but also the kind of hippie-dippie thing this girl would say with conviction.) Essentially, one ending functions as her adolescent fantasy while the other is the less romantic reality.

Beyond the gripping narrative, which mostly races by at maximum speed with only a few dead spots, one of the main pleasures of Savages is its cast. Hayek and Del Toro have the most crowd-pleasing characters to play and they clearly know it, tearing into their scenes with a showy ferocity that's a blast to watch. (Hayek in particular seems to be auditioning for a Scarface spin-off revolving around a distant relative -- or possibly illegitimate daughter -- of Tony Montana.) Travolta also seems to enjoy playing his duplicitous DEA guy; if Vince Gilligan is looking to nab a big-name guest star for the final batch of Breaking Bad episodes, it would be fun to see Dennis partnering up with New Mexico's finest drug cop, Hank Schrader. But even with the veteran performers stealing the show, the young actors acquit themselves nicely as well. It's been a rough year for Kitsch, what with the back-to-back failures of both John Carter and Battleship and he's obviously far more comfortable and Tim Riggins-like in this milieu, as a member of a team rather than a solo action star. He's well-matched with Johnson, who brings the mellowness and emotional range that Kitsch isn't completely capable of yet. And while Lively may be entirely typecast as the golden Cali goddess, her performance works because -- whether intentionally or not -- she doesn't play O as a sympathetic heroine, but rather as something of a spoiled brat who is in the midst of an exceptionally rude wake-up call.

Behind the camera, Stone gives the film the seedy, grungy feel of an '80s Cannon film production... or an outtake from Natural Born Killers. Anyone expecting the kind of cultural critique present in that film, though, may be somewhat disappointed to learn that Savages is a straightforward crime story, albeit one told with far more energy and enthusiasm (not to mention narrative focus) than Stone's last few movies. Despite being great summer fun, the fact that the film is being dumped between competing comic-book franchises (specifically The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Returns) doesn't bode well for its longevity at the multiplex. So I'm starting the drumbeat here: if you devour crime novels like these characters devour weed, go see Savages. If you're a fan of Breaking Bad (a much better drug saga overall, to be sure), go see Savages. If you miss the Taylor Kitsch that used to be on Friday Night Lights, go see Savages. If you just want to see one summer movie where nobody dons a special uniform and fights super-villains, mutants, aliens or all of the above (as in Men in Black III), go see Savages. It's not especially deep and it's not especially brilliant, but it is a ripping good yarn.

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