By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2012)
“Just because I’m telling you this story,” cautions the narrator in the opening scene of Oliver Stone’s Savages, “…doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” While this may conjure up visions of William Holden floating face down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard, this isn’t Hollywood hack Joe Gillis’ voice we’re listening to; rather it’s a young woman named “O” (Blake Lively). Blonde, Laguna Beach tanned, and, erm, quite “fit”, O could have materialized directly from Brian Wilson’s libido. However, hers is not a happy story of sun and surf…it’s a darker tale about guns and turf.
No stranger to dark tales about guns and turf, Stone takes the ball that novelist Don Winslow tossed him with his 2010 pot trade noir, and not only runs with it, but ratchets it up six ways from any given Sunday; transforming it into Scarface 2.0 for Millennials, with a touch of Jules and Jim. Indeed, it’s only five minutes before he has someone revving up a chainsaw (and not to cut wood). The power tools star in an exclusive (and gruesome) webcast targeting O’s two lovers, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch).
Ben and Chon are 20-something BFFs who run a thriving business selling weed touted “the best cannabis in the world.” It seems a Tijuana drug cartel, led by a ruthless widow (and prolific widow-maker) named Elena (a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek), wants a piece of their action. Her message is very clear: Use your head, or lose your head.
That sounds like a plan to Ben. A Berkeley alum with a business degree, he’s the brains; idealistic, California mellow, never fired a shot in anger, we can work this out, etc. His bud Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL, is the brawn. Fuck these guys, I’ve already got one in the chamber, let’s rock’n’roll, etc. He is also an Afghanistan war vet, with issues. As O helpfully clarifies in the voice-over, she “…has orgasms,” (when Chon makes love to her) whilst he “…has wargasms.” (And they said Sniglets were dead).
Chon wants to call their bluff. After a meeting with Elena’s negotiator (Demian Bichir) ends in a stalemate, she sends in her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to use more “persuasive” methods. Ben and Chon brainstorm and continue to play for time, until Lado and his henchmen take O as a hostage. From that point, our intrepid duo decides that when Kush comes to shove, they will not be intimidated; so they call in favors from a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta) and a few of Chon’s ex-SEAL buddies.
In real life, one suspects that Ben and Chon would end up starring in one of Elena’s snuff videos somewhere around the end of the first act (I’m not even sure they could locate their car after a Phish concert). I know… “It’s only a movie!” But I still advise you be prepared to suspend disbelief regarding what ensues in this rote (if slickly made and beautifully photographed) Elmore Leonard-esque tale of double-crosses, triple-crosses, and ultimately, a lot of white crosses (although to be fair, Stone’s body count here isn’t as high as in Natural Born Killers). All the Stone trademarks are here, except for the passion; not that he’s required to provide political subtext every time out, but this is uncharacteristically joyless film making.
The cast does its best with woefully underwritten parts, but by the muddled third act, everyone’s acting in a different film. Travolta and Del Toro, who usually liven up things, regardless of script quality (especially when playing heavies) look too bored to even go for camp. None of the characters are particularly likable (even our heroine is a whiny ditz). Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the All-Star Dutch Treat quality of Showtime’s Weeds and AMC’s Breaking Bad, but this narrative (independent entrepreneur outwits the big bad cartel) has been done to death…and frankly, with more originality and élan.