Directed By: Oliver Stone
Starring: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio del Toro, John Travolta, Demian Bichir, Salma Hayek
No filmmaker should strive to make a mindless action movie, but if that’s what you end up with, at least they work. You may not get a profound story, but you still get an entertaining film. On the other hand, if you’ve got something in the thriller category veering away from outlandish action and towards gritty realism, you better have the elements necessary to make that work, otherwise you’ll end up with something that’s noticeably forced and possibly confusing, lifeless and boring, too, just like Savages.
Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) have the life. They’re wildly successful pot growers and dealers happily sharing their girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), in their beautiful home in Laguna Beach, California. When the head of the a Mexican drug cartel, Elena La Reina (Salma Hayek), wants in on their profits, the duo attempts to respectfully decline. Too bad for them Elena will not take no for an answer and in attempt to get in on their top-notch goods, she has her ruthless henchman Lado (Benicio del Toro) abduct O. Now, should Ben and Chon refuse to do business with her, Elena will have O killed.
Not a Blake Lively fan? You won’t last five minutes into Savages. In it for the action? I give you 30 minutes. Enjoy looking at Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch? You might make it to the midpoint – and that’s the midpoint in terms of running time; the Savages’ script is nearly devoid of structure.
Savages had so much going for it, but co-writer/director Oliver Stone couldn’t pull any of it together. Things get off to a rocky start, the screenplay telling the story from O’s perspective. At first, this isn’t much of an issue, but when the film expands it’s nearly impossible to readjust to the other players’ perspectives. And, even then, O’s perspective isn’t all that engaging. Yes it’s established that the character has been a pothead since the 8th grade, but that doesn’t give Lively license to portray her as though she’s empty inside. When she isn’t drooling all over Johnson and Kitsch, she’s in captivity where she merely whines to Elena about her accommodations. There’s a little fight in her, but Lively’s flat performance extinguishes it entirely.
Another problem that plagues the script early on and bleeds into the rest of the piece is the threesome. If you’re going to have an audience believe Ben, Chon and O can and do really live happily ever after together, some voice over and a handful of sex scenes aren’t going to cut it. There’s a similar issue with the relationship between Ben and Chon. The boys have some chemistry, but Kitsch is simply playing the muscle/ex-Navy SEAL while Johnson is the college grad with a heart. Johnson gets far closer than Kitsch to delivering a character with some layers, making Ben more than a character, rather a real person with wheels spinning inside his head. The unfortunate thing about that is the lack of similar characters to play which renders it nearly meaningless.
Hayek and del Toro are both a ton of fun to watch, but while their roles are quite colorful, the environment they’re working in, and the story they’re in for that matter, never builds enough to make them truly threatening. Lado will off anyone in a heartbeat and, should she not have henchman to do her work for her, Elena would likely do the same, but it’s only visual; it never evokes a visceral response. John Travolta has some memorable moments as Dennis, the DEA agent who helps keep Ben and Chon’s operation as clean as possible, but in the grand scheme of things, his storyline becomes jumbled and his actions make you feel nothing.
That’s really the worst thing about Savages. It’s not a terrible movie by any means. The performances are decent and Stone offers up a few stunning visuals as well as a rather raw tone, but all of that amounts to nothing when the film is incapable of making the viewer feel anything. Part of this is definitely a result of pacing. When you dub a film an action thriller, it can’t just have a few impressive battle sequences; the pace of the film overall needs to reflect that, otherwise you’ll end up with audience members checking their watches in between the exciting parts and that’s exactly what happens here. But even worse, it’s tough to forget that all of the action that does go down is absolutely pointless. Ben and Chon pride themselves on running a drug business minus all the threats and brutality that typically comes with it. Had Elena not forced herself into their business, none of this would have happened to begin with. No, that’s not something that should have tarnished the movie until the end, but when there are such dull lulls in between the more exciting material, you just can’t help but to think about it.
Not a terrible movie, but not a very entertaining one either, Savages’ wildly unfulfilling grand finale solidifies it as a film not worth catching.